There are times when the ethics of eating engage in uncomfortable frottage with my restaurant reviews. While these regrettable instance are few and far between, I occasionally find myself between what a restaurant wants to serve and what my readers want to protest.
I consider it my job to eat food and foist my opinion on a dubious public. I do not consider it my job to make ethical judgments about what is on the menu. That's your job as a consumer. You're the one with the power to move your money and affect the change you'd like to see.
That being said, there are some instances when it becomes my job to provide you with information about what you might be eating. This week I received a letter from a reader who took me to task for being so cavalier in my mention of shark-fin soup on the menu at Ocean City.
Shark meat is not often eaten due to the huge amount of urea in its flesh. However, the collagen in the dorsal fin is used as a thickening agent in certain traditional Asian dishes, making the fin the only useful part of the animal for certain cuisine. When harvested, the fins are cut from living wild-caught sharks, which are then thrown back in the water to die.
In deference to the letter-writer, I decided to call up the Monterey Bay Aquarium, whose Seafood Watch program provides information about the sustainability (or lack thereof) of eating various species. I got in touch with the Aquarium's Communication Director Ken Peterson who noted that shark has always been on Seafood Watch's "avoid" list.
"The problem is that sharks are so long lived and reproduce so slowly," Peterson told me. "The amount that are finned leads to a decline in population."
"Because they are top predators, what you wind up doing is not only affecting the sharks but also an entire ecosystem." he said.
Peterson explained that the shark fin industry removes up to 100 million sharks per year from the Ocean's ecosystem. He noted that there are a lot of international treaties and restrictions regarding the finning of sharks, and that it's illegal to transport shark fins in the United States, save for one enourmous loophole:
"Currently, vessels are allowed to transport fins as long as the sharks have not been finned on the vessel itself," Peterson explained.
Which means one vessel can fin the sharks as long as those fins are transported to another vessel in order to bring them to US ports. However, there is legislation in the Senate to close that loophole.
Consider yourself informed.