Sharks and shark products are in use for medical purpose in many countries across the Indian ocean. Stories about this animal were gathered and written by students. They are all part of a pedagogical project, funded by the National University of Singapore and the Université de Paris. The Bestiary site is a work-in-progress and a participatory educational tool, representing animals whose products or body parts are used to promote health and healing.
A Story by Jannie Tan Yan Zhi
The word for shark in Chinese script is 鲨鱼 (Sha yu), 鱼 means fish, and along with the word 鲨, shark means a fish under 沙 (sha) or sand. From the symbols, we can surmise that to the Chinese, sharks were described as marine animals found near beaches.
Since my childhood, shark fin soup has come to be associated with Chinese weddings because it is usually served during a Chinese wedding in Singapore. I never really wondered about it until I was exposed to the cruelties behind the consumption of shark fin soup, during my Secondary school years. It disturbed me, but I continued consuming shark fin soup for a few years during weddings, until I eventually decided to embrace veganism in 2017, for ethical reasons.
I recently discovered that shark meat was sold in some food stalls in Singapore hawker centres. It made me wonder about sharks in Chinese society. Why must shark fin soup always be consumed at weddings? What is the significance of sharks in Chinese culture?
Sharks are the most threatened marine animals, caught for industrial, consumption, and sport. Large sharks, especially those in shallow waters, are the most threatened. Moreover, sharks are also caught as by-products of the fishing industry. One of the largest importers of shark fin is southern China. In Chinese culture, shark fin is served at weddings because they represent good fortune. In old traditional Chinese medicine books, it was claimed that shark fins could nourish the blood, provide energy, enhance appetite and so on. Ironically, it was recently proven that shark fin might be harmful to the body due to high levels of mercury present from bioaccumulation.
In recent years, there has been more awareness about the damage caused by consuming and producing shark fin soup. For example, the process of obtaining shark fins is cruel as the sharks caught have their fins removed, and they are then thrown back into the sea to fend for themselves. Due to mounting criticisms against the industry, in 2011, many major hotel chains such as Shangri-La, The Marriott, and the International, dropped shark fin soup from their wedding menus. The most significant action, however, was the WildAid campaign in 2006.
WildAid found that 75% of Chinese were unaware that shark fin soup actually contained shark fins, as the Chinese translation for the dish is “fish wing soup”. Furthermore, almost 20% of those surveyed by WildAid thought that the fins would grow back. To bring more public attention to the issue, they enlisted the help of a famous retired Chinese NBA player, Yao Ming. Overall, the campaign was a success as shark fin soup consumption has since fallen by 70% in China.
Although the consumption of shark fin soup, which was the greatest contributor to the demand for sharks, has reduced, many shark species are still endangered as they are hunted for their meat and fins. Furthermore, sharks are indirectly threatened by climate change, industrial fishing and pollution. While the significance of culture and traditional foods are important, they need to be weighed against the contemporary challenges and moral issues of our times.
Dead shark (Puri, Orissa, India, 1977) © Leo Jalais
Value in Asian medicine
Shark meat, cartilage and fins are eaten by humans, even if the most consumed part is their fins. Despite the opulence of shark fin soup at a wedding, and the perceived therapeutic benefits, scientific research has found shark fins to be more harmful to the human body. In a study that analyzed shark fins found in China and Hong Kong, levels of methylmercury, mercury and arsenic that exceeded recommended amounts were found. This was because of the fact that sharks are at the top of the food chain, therefore, the toxic heavy metals found throughout the food chain end up in sharks. The toxic heavy metals are harmful when ingested as they lead to brain and central nervous system damage, as well as various cancer risks (Garcia Barcia et al., 2020). Although the use of Sharks was seen to be useful in TCM, modern science and medicine shows that the opposite is true.
Another part of the shark used for its perceived health value to humans is the cartilage. It is believed that shark cartilage could cure cancer as sharks do not get cancer. However, the consumption of the sharks’ cartilage specifically, was found not to have cancer curing properties. Therefore, its consumption could be seen to be useless, and even harmful due to the impact on shark populations (Ostrander et al., 2004). Even if shark cartilage had some efficacy for cancer treatment, neurotoxins and mercury are concentrated in shark cartilage. They are usually consumed as supplements, and mercury and environmental neurotoxins b-N-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA) were found in such supplements, which have adverse effects on the human nervous system (Mondo et al., 2014).
Shark meat has been consumed mainly in Asian countries since the 4th century and it remains a major food source in places like Korea. Although consumption of fish meat, such as shark, is beneficial to the human body due to its Omega-3 fatty acids which are beneficial for cardiovascular health, the safety of consuming shark meat remains a concern. Bioaccumulation results in high concentration of heavy metals in sharks. One of the most significant is methylmercury as it is shown to be absorbed most easily by the human body. Its excessive intake could lead to damage to the brain, cardiovascular systems, eyesight and more (Kim et al., 2019).
Although there is little direct interaction of sharks and humans beyond their consumption, sharks could also directly transmit diseases to humans. One of the main ways which sharks transmit to humans would be through bites, which may pass zoonoses such as the Vibrios bacteria (Austin 2010). Ironically, the origins of these zoonoses diseases in sharks are a result of pollution of waters by humans such as agricultural waste, run-off by factories and general waste (Bogomolni et al., 2008). To conclude, despite our flippant attitudes towards how we treat sharks, they do bite back dead or alive and we should treat them with respect.