As environmentalists and fishermen clash throughout Asia over the toothy issue of
shark fin soup, in Cambodia's restaurants, it seems, the customer is still always
right. And in most cases it's a well-heeled Asian customer out to impress.
Dried shark fins on display in a Chinese delicatessen. Their popularity angers environmentalists.
Driven by the booming number of affluent regional tourists, upscale restaurants in
Phnom Penh have no bones about serving up the controversial delicacy.
Shark fin soup is an ancient Asian status symbol. But what was once considered fit
for emperors is now a deal-closing, eyebrow-raising gesture of respect for businessmen
bent on conspicuous consumption.
As Asia's economies boom, so too does the number of wealthy merchants with a penchant
for fin - and the growing demand has angry activists gnashing their teeth.
In Thailand, the environmental group WildAid won a libel suit launched in an attempt
to halt the NGO's campaign on what it says are the health risks and environmental
consequences of the soup.
In Hong Kong, entertainment giant Disney was obliged to announce it would not be
serving shark fin soup at its Asian theme park following an eviscerating campaign
by environmental groups.
And two weeks ago, at a WildAid-sponsored event in China, NBA basketball superstar
Yao Ming, who once played for the Shanghai Sharks, swore off the dish saying, "Endangered
species are our friends."
But in Cambodia, it seems WildAid has bigger fish to fry.
"There is no campaign [against shark fin soup] at all in Cambodia," said
Suwanna Gauntlett, country director of WildAid and a founder and board member of
the organization. "Bear paw soup is more popular here."
Intra-Asian tourism has become increasingly important to Cambodia's tourist industry.
Asian visitors first accounted for well over half of Cambodian tourism in 2003 according
to the Ministry of Tourism's statistical report yearbook. And wealthy Asian tourists
are devouring shark fins in their droves.
"Only foreigners eat the soup," said Kim Ngon, 60, manager of Heng Lay
restaurant in Chruoy Changvar. "Most Cambodians don't have the money to buy
it - but if you compare the price of shark fin soup here to in Singapore or Malaysia
it is much cheaper and the taste is not that different."
This trend is in line with new patterns of shark fin soup consumption in Thailand,
said Steve Gasket of WildAid Bangkok.
"Thailand is a tourist destination," Gasket said. "Taiwanese and mainland
Chinese tourists can buy shark fin soup far cheaper in Thailand than at home and
now there are many tourists, busloads of them, coming through."
This Asia-wide penchant for shark fin has drawn WildAid's ire for several reasons.
"Sharks are endangered," Galster said. "And there is a lot of cruelty
involved in the process of finning sharks."
Finning is a practice where the fins of sharks are sliced off on the fishing trawlers,
then the shark, still alive, is flung back into the ocean to face a slow but certain
Experts say the practice has increased because shark fin soup has recently re-emerged
as a status symbol in many Asian societies. This has contributed to an alarming depletion
of the global shark population.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) conservatively estimates that 856,000
tons of shark and its cousins, rays and skate, were caught in 2003. This is triple
the quantity caught 50 years ago.
Shark fins have long been a highly prized delicacy in Asia and are mentioned in writings
from China's Ming Dynasty as early as the 14th Century. They were often listed as
articles of tribute when officers of the coastal regions visited the emperors in
the imperial court. Because so little is obtained from such a large fish, fins have
been perceived as noble, precious, and fit for the tables of the emperor.
The purported health benefits, as documented by old Chinese medical books, ascribe
the soup restorative properties. It is believed by aficionados to be beneficial to
vital energy, kidneys, lungs, bones and many other parts of the body, said an FAO
report on shark use, marketing and trade.
WildAid says such benefits are mythical. Shark fin soup is a status symbol, not a
nutritional supplement, Gasket said.
"You are being ripped off," he said. "It is not the shark fin itself
that has much nutritional value, it is the broth. The FAO did a study saying there
is not much more nutritional value to the soup than an egg."
Nutritional or not, shark fin soup is highly prized. In Phnom Penh the Sunway, Le
Royal and InterContinental all offer a variety of shark fin dishes, but only by special
request and at a price that would deter most. One cup of "Superior" shark
fin soup with bean sprouts comes with a hefty $50 price tag at the Xiang Palace Restaurant
at the InterContinental.
Across the Chruoy Changvar bridge at the Heng Lay Restaurant, shark fin soup is a
little less expensive - just $20 a bowl. Restaurant manager Ngon voiced suspicion
that customers shell out to impress, rather than because they believe in the purported
health benefits of the soup.
"In my opinion this soup does not have the health-improving properties it is
renowned for," he said. "It tastes normal, but the wealthy order it to
prove they can buy such an expensive food."
Galster says customers are not only being ripped off, but they could be endangering
their health. Sharks, as top oceanic predators, are likely to accumulate high levels
of mercury. This can pose serious health risks, particularly for women of childbearing
age, yet there is little information on these risks available to Asian consumers,
"The consumer has a right to know," he said. "We are trying to inform
people, and are asking them to stop eating it. In 2004 WildAid won a libel case against
the Thai Restaurant Agency which had accused us of lying about how shark fins were
obtained and about the levels of mercury in the soup."
He aid the global fishing industry is bypassing the attempts of various countries
to curtail shark fishing.
"The fishing is very self regulated; there is hardly any enforcement on the
high seas," he said. "Every time a country polices its coastline, a little
more of the fishing industry migrates - rather like 'capital flight' within the garment
industry when manufacturers uproot their operations and head to new countries as
regulations in one place tighten and costs increase."