In a case of PR gone horribly wrong, sharks have held onto a fearsome reputation in popular media for decades. Ever since the movie Jaws hit Hollywood, the public has been more concerned over sharks eating people rather than people eating sharks. This attitude is slowly starting to change, but will it be too late too save sharks from extinction at the hands of unsustainable fishing practices?

Today, San Francisco conservation groups are standing up to the alarming disappearance of sharks at the hands of “shark finners” who kills an estimated 100 million sharks each year. Shark finning is the harvesting of adult dorsal and pectoral fins and the discarding of the less valuable shark carcass. The fins are usually cut off the live shark, with the still living body thrown overboard to perish at the bottom of the ocean. With dried shark fin prices reaching upwards of $500 per pound in San Francisco shops, harvesting has increased beyond sustainable levels and sales of fins continue to go unregulated by legislature.

The harvested fins from commercial fleets usually end up served as a key ingredient in traditional Chinese banquets. Since the Ming dynasty, shark fin soup has been an important cultural and culinary tradition in communities celebrating special events. According to an article in the New York Times, Emperors loved shark fin soup because “it was rare, tasty and difficult to prepare.” Currently, the expensive soup is served by hosts determined to show honor and appreciation for their guests. Many consumers of the traditional dish argue that if you do not provide shark fin soup at special functions, the host will lose face and potentially suffer disgrace.

Served as a symbol of prosperity and health, despite that fact that today most shark fins contain dangerous levels of mercury, the subject of serving shark fin soup is an understandably culturally sensitive topic for consumers. This presents a delicate struggle for opponents who hope that public education will turn the tides against the unsustainable practice of shark finning.

Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid (based in San Francisco), told the Times in an interview that “what’s needed, is a huge increase in consumer awareness.” To accomplish that goal, local organizations like Aquarium of the Bay, Sea Stewards, and WildAid have enlisted the support of public figures–including nationally syndicated cartoonist Jim Toomey (of Sherman’s Lagoon) and action star Jackie Chan–to try to alter public attitudes towards an often misunderstood and endangered predator.

Aquarium of the Bay’s Director of Husbandry Christina Slager explains that “people have a perception of sharks as vicious killers and blood thirsty. Of course, the irony is sharks are endangered from humans, humans aren’t in danger from sharks. Most sharks are shy and secretive. Very few of the many species would even remotely consider eating a human being. So it’s really bad press and it’s unfortunate.”

Through outreach and special exhibits, Slager says she hopes to educate the public about the beauty and importance of sharks in both a global and local context.

“I think it would be easier to rally people if they were cutting fins off dolphins because of that whole charismatic animal thing,” said Slager, “but sharks are incredibly important to the food web, once you start mucking about with that it has all kinds of effects that we haven’t even begun to guess at yet.”

Paul Watson, President and Founder of the Sea Shephard Organization agrees, “You remove the shark and then you can cause some serious problems with diversity in the ocean.”

Sharks are slow to sexually mature, so harvesting adult species is especially detrimental to populations. In fact, an estimated 95% of shark species are currently in decline. So what does shark finning mean for the San Francisco Bay’s delicate ecosystem?

According to marine biologists like Slager, finning practices have a detrimental impact on the entire balance of the San Francisco’s Bay food web. With declining populations of apex hunters, everything begins to fall out of balance. Christina wagers that if local sharks disappear, we will suddenly see all the fish species down the food web starting to disappear as well, and “things will really go askew.”

Meanwhile, local San Francisco restaurants like Benu have waged their own culinary campaigns against using real shark fins in soup. In a presentation earlier this year at Google, award winning Chef Corey Lee explained his preparation of a faux shark fin soup using molecular gastronomy tools to mimic the unique texture of shark fin.

Previously the chef de cuisine at the French Laundry, Lee drew upon his own Asian roots and haute culinary background to wow critics with his faux dish’s innovation and sustainable focus.

Lee explains, “The interesting thing is that it’s all about texture, that’s what makes it unique. The actual flavor comes from whatever stock it’s cooked in or the bouillon that it’s served with or the sauce that it’s prepared with.”

By using complex flavors that incorporate dungeness crab, jinhua ham, black truffle custard, and threads of hydrocolloid-gelled broth, Chef Lee’s imitation consomme has been winning rave reviews. Just last week, food critic Jonathan Kauffman called the faux shark’s fin soup one of the “tours de force” of the entire tasting menu.

Benu’s culinary achievement is great news not only for sharks, but also for San Francisco residents who now have a viable alternative to consuming the pricey and mercury laden fins. As apex predators, sharks contain more dangerous pollutants than almost all other varieties of sea life. This phenomenon is largely due to the process of bio-magnification, when toxic substances become increasingly more concentrated as they move up the food chain.

According to a study conducted by the FDA, recent samples of shark from Ecuador, Mexico, and Venezuela have been found to contain residues of methyl mercury exceeding safe consumption levels. The California Environmental Protection Agency and The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment have also tested sharks from the San Francisco Bay and advises that women who are pregnant or could become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children not eat shark from the Bay.

In this era of intensive food and public health regulation (just take a look at recent ban of toys in McDonald’s happy meals), one might be surprised to learn that shark fins continue to be openly sold right here in San Francisco. We took a walk around San Francisco’s Chinatown to see for ourselves if we could find fins for sale and were surprised at the ease and availability of such a controversial food item. Unfortunately, shop owners declined to comment on their choice to carry the product. Shark fins continue to be a delicate subject for communities who view the expensive soup as a venerable custom, with strong ties to familial honor, prestige, and perceived wealth.

Thanks to the hard work of San Francisco conservationists like the Aquarium By the Bay, WildAid, Sea Stewards, and with a little help from innovative Chefs like Correy Lee, efforts to save sharks are gaining local momentum and support. Last month more than 3,600 individualized letters were sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service urging international bans on shark finning.

Interested in getting involved? The U.S. Shark Conservation Act of 2009, a bill that offered critical protection for sharks, has been filibustered. But you can write or fax your senators to demand the Bill’s reintroduction and approval at the next session of Congress.

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