“On the face of it, there seems to be no reason for shark fins to have become, on a price per pound basis, the most valuable thing you can take from a living creature in the ocean (they currently sell for as much as $300 a pound). They are virtually flavorless. A shark fin is almost pure cartilage, which is so tough that is must be boiled for hours until it breaks down into spaghetti-like strands. These strands, still almost un-chewable, are used to make soup whose only taste comes from its other ingredients. Yet this soup sells for $60 a bowl in China, and in the most expensive restaurants in the Chinatowns of London and San Francisco, it goes for as much as $400 a bowl.
Here’s the quick answer: For ages, shark fin soup was an Asian delicacy, a status symbol reserved for the wealthy, most prominently in China. There’s a Chinese proverb that partly explains the appeal of such soup: ‘A thing is valued if it is rare.’ So the market for shark fins has existed for a long time, mostly in China. But why the recent surge in [shark kills]?
This one is largely explained by the economic boom that has taken place in China over the past generation. As the ruling Communist Party has loosened its restrictions on capitalist trade, a large, upwardly mobile Chinese middle class has been growing. It is no longer just the rich in China who can afford the pleasures and prestige of shark fin soup. In China today, almost any significant social affair, from a wedding reception to a birthday celebration, is likely to feature shark fin soup on the menu.
The story of how shark fins find their way from the sea into soup isn’t a happy one. As many as 70 million sharks netted or hooked worldwide each year have their fins hacked off and their still-living carcasses tossed back overboard as soon as they’re caught.”