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An Ocean Apart


[clock] 20-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 2015
Can two forces threatening the sustainability of sharks—the fishermen of Mexico and consumers in China—help the fish survive?

Fishing for blue shark near Baja California.

Twenty-two miles off the rugged coast of Baja Sur, Mexico, just north of Magdalena Bay, I’m huddled in the back of a fifteen-foot panga with Guarepo Lucero and his nephew, Kin Kin, as they check the shark lines they baited the night before. The wind has picked up since then, and now the waves are crashing over the gunwales of our tiny craft, soaking us with frigid seawater. The skiff pitches from side to side, and all the while my two companions keep hauling sharks into the boat.

“Whoop!” shouts Kin Kin. “Heeya!” They’ve got another one on the line. For the Luceros, it’s been a great day. Their panga is stacked with half a ton of shark—from a three-foot juvenile mako to an eight-foot blue half as long as the panga itself. Both men are grinning ear-to-ear. Guarepo is a hulking man whose massive arms and intense stare are at odds with his carefree, boyish attitude. He heads a folk band in his spare time and, as I consider throwing up in his boat, he happily sings a mariachi tune against the wind. Finally we pull up alongside the struggling shark. Guarepo yanks on the line, grabs a wooden truncheon, and begins to beat the fish, scolding it whenever it snaps at his hand. Finally the shark stops fighting, and Guarepo hauls it—convulsing, tail whipping back and forth—into the skiff and onto the pile.

This remote corner of Baja is both unforgiving and inspiring—an austere landscape well suited to desperados and epic tales. And on a small island, tucked in against a lazy estuary, is the Cabo San Lázaro fishing camp, where the Luceros and a handful of other fishermen stay in a series of simple shacks, cobbled together and barely keeping out the Pacific breeze. To reach the camp, you must drive to a quiet pueblo three quarters of the way down Baja California, take a boat across the estuary, then drive another thirty miles at low tide down a sprawling beach littered with whale bones, then over a dirt road that takes you past a lighthouse straight out of a romance novel. Craggy mountains line the northern end of camp, and a long series of dunes stretches away to the south. Between them, a slow, shallow river connects a small pocket of marshes to the sea.

I’ve come to this isolated part of Baja to better understand the dramatic decline of one of the ocean’s most loved and feared inhabitants. Over the last decade, marine scientists have been sounding the alarm about plummeting shark populations. Up to 100 million sharks are caught by fishermen every year. By some measures, commercial fishing has led to a decline in the population of certain large shark species by more than 95 percent. Experts believe that the scale of these hauls is unsustainable, and that without strict policies to protect them, many of the biggest, most recognizable sharks could disappear from our oceans, devastating the ecosystems they help to regulate.

Two cultural forces drive this trend, one related to supply and the other to demand. On the supply side are the Luceros, men who follow their passion and tradition onto lethal and increasingly unprofitable waters. The small-scale fishermen of San Lázaro don’t catch nearly as many sharks as large commercial boats farther out to sea, but they can have an outsized effect on populations by catching juveniles and pregnant females closer to shore. More importantly, though, the fishermen here represent the cultural heart of the Mexican shark-fishing trade. If the countries providing shark are to manage the fish sustainably, they must begin in places like this. 

The demand side, meanwhile, lies on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, where booming economies meet ancient traditions, and where a family’s hopes for its future are boiled down into a bowl of soup. As China has grown into its role as a dominant global economy, culture and conservation have come crashing together. And unless something changes, sharks may end up just another casualty to a growing national appetite.

Daybreak at the Cabo San Lázaro fishing camp.

Shark fins drying in the sun.


“Making shark-fin soup has a ritual to it,” says Po Kwok Yeung, a veteran chef with Hong Kong’s Harbour Plaza hotel group. “There’s a certain way to approach it—a certain way to cook it and to prepare it.”

Like most Hong Kong chefs, Yeung’s not terribly interested in the shark itself—where it came from, how it was caught, or even the species. He only cares about a series of fibrous spines that shape the animal’s dorsal fin. These spines, or needles, are protein structures similar to human fingernails, and are the only part of the shark most diners will ever see. 

Yeung boils the fin, removes the spines, and after more boiling the spines become limp and look a little like bean sprouts. Then he adds a broth of beef, pork, chicken, or some combination thereof that gives the soup its flavor. In the end, the spines become little more than an interesting substitute for noodles. Yeung, who has a kind voice and baby-face features, says that, from a culinary perspective, shark-fin soup is neither interesting nor challenging. It’s strange to him that such an unremarkable dish could cause such harm. He’s not an environmentalist, per se, but it saddens him that the sea monsters of his childhood are becoming so rare today.

“In the eighties there were tons of the best quality shark fin with a lot of big, thick needles,” he says. “I once saw a tiger-shark fin that was as tall as me.” If he had his way, he would skip shark and use less exotic ingredients in ways that brought out their flavors and challenged the diner. That said, he won’t be giving up on shark-fin soup anytime soon. “For the older generation until now it’s been a very famous, luxurious food.” In other words, he says, people want it, they expect it, and they’re willing to pay.

Gina Lam is one such customer. We meet one March morning in 2014 as she walks through Sheung Wan, Hong Kong’s seafood district, searching for the right fin. At seventy-five, vigorous and feisty, she claims to eat shark-fin soup once a week. “You look at me,” she says. “I am very strong, I am very healthy. It’s because I sleep a lot and I eat shark-fin soup.” She bemoans the fact that young people no longer embrace the cultural role of food—which includes taking the time to cook their own meals, even if that means boiling a fish fin for more than a day.

The Sheung Wan district is a throwback to the days when Hong Kong was a maze of tiny streets filled with merchants selling trinkets from exotic lands. There are whole blocks here dedicated to ivory, antique ceramics, and jade jewelry. Shops offer bird nests, dried lizard, and all manner of dried seafood. But the signature product on sale here is shark fin. The dorsal fins of whale sharks, tiger sharks, and massive hammerheads hang in dozens of shop windows; inside you find smaller, cheaper options like blue shark, mako, or dogfish. 

A seafood merchant in the Sheung Wan district of Hong Kong.

The dry-seafood market in the western district of Hong Kong.

Shark-fin soup has a deep history in Chinese imperial cuisine, reaching back to the Ming Dynasty. According to legend, it was also a notable part of the Manchu Han Imperial Feast, a three-day meal presented by the emperor in 1720, where shark-fin soup was supposedly served alongside such dishes as camel’s hump, leopard fetus, and brains scooped from the skulls of living monkeys. For centuries after, it was an iconic dish for the wealthy, far too expensive for the commoner. But as the Chinese middle class has grown, it has become ubiquitous at banquets, especially weddings.

Yet in recent years, despite its popularity, shark-fin soup has become a contentious political issue in China. Once a symbol of prestige, shark fin is now becoming something of an embarrassment among younger Chinese, ever since sickening images of sharks—sinking to the ocean floor with their dorsal fins sliced off—went viral across China’s internet.

The images fueled a widespread backlash, with local and international environmental groups quickly jumping into the fray. Boycotts sprang up. Even Yao Ming, the NBA star and Chinese national hero, publicly decried shark-fin soup on billboards. The backlash eventually caught the eye of the Communist Party and in 2012, the Chinese government announced a ban on shark fin at official functions.

Much like America’s dolphin-safe tuna movement in the 1980s, the shark-fin boycott is China’s first foray into consumer-led environmental action. In Hong Kong, the effect has been dramatic. Ricky Leung Lak-kee, chairman of the Hong Kong Marine Products Association, says that blue-shark fin, sold for $150 USD per pound a few years ago, now sells closer to $20 per pound. What’s more, imports of fin have dropped at least 30 percent, with some types declining by as much as 70 percent. Few restaurants or hotels in Hong Kong admit to serving shark fin, and even the popular chain Fu Sing Shark Fin Seafood Restaurant is reportedly considering a name change.

Leung doesn’t buy the hype. Partly it’s his job not to. But he claims that much of the public outcry is over issues of cruelty, and that killing a shark is no crueler than killing a tuna. “May I suggest you go to the environmentalists and ask them why it is cruel to go for a white shark and all the other fish it’s not?” he says. “What’s the difference?”

Leung has imported shark fin since 1966, and he insists the sharks are doing fine. As for his favorite source for high-quality fins, Leung prefers the waters off western Mexico. It’s there, he says, in Baja California, that people will be hurt most by boycotts and environmental regulation. “The fishermen are suffering because of nothing,” he says. “The ocean is deep and wide. Sharks are there.”


In Mexico, at least, a few sharks are still there. For some sixty years the country has been a major player in the global shark trade. During World War II, it provided the United States with shark oil, which is rich in vitamin A, as a dietary supplement for American troops. After the war, Baja fishermen continued supplying the US with shark parts for dietary supplements, medicines, and even commercial lubricants. But in the 1990s, as the soup craze boomed along with China’s economy, shark fishermen switched to fins. In those years, shark camps dotted Mexico’s western coast and ringed the Sea of Cortez, spurred on by generous loans for equipment from a government eager to keep people working.

But it wasn’t long before shark populations, which grow and reproduce slowly, plummeted. Today Magdalena Bay is one of the few viable shark fisheries left. It isn’t just the region’s remote location that makes for such good fishing; nutrient-rich currents surge from deeper waters and combine with unique geographic features to create an ideal setting for all sorts of creatures. Sea turtles, whales, and dolphin come here to gorge themselves on the plentiful fish and invertebrates.

Still, fishermen here are feeling the pinch of a shrinking market and a dwindling shark population. Back in the Cabo San Lázaro fishing camp, “Whitey” Romero, a third-generation shark fisherman, brings in a day’s haul just as the light is fading from the sky on another breezy day. Fishermen say rough water draws sharks to the surface, which explains the need to head out in dangerous conditions. Today’s weather was calmer than yesterday’s, and the catch is a couple hundred pounds lighter. 

Romero, younger than the others and built like a bulldozer, separates his catch by species—mostly mako and blue sharks. He slices off the dorsal, pectoral, and tail fins and tosses them in a crate while a scrappy white mutt tries to sneak away with a fin bigger than its head. The fisherman pulls out a pregnant female whose young scatter from her sliced-open belly onto the beach.

A few years ago, a haul like this would have earned about $550, split three ways among two fishermen and the boat owner. These days, the men are lucky to get $300 per boat. For the first time, the meat of the shark is now worth more than the fins. 

At the camp, conspiracy theories abound as to why prices have plummeted. Some blame local environmental groups, fishermen from other regions, and the government. Guarepo Lucero and the other fishermen are convinced that Chinese middlemen are cheating them. But no one talks about leaving the camp or selling their boats. They’ll just go farther out to sea. 

And this is where economics fail to match reality. If demand stays low for decades, younger fishermen may eventually leave in search of better work. In the meantime, their fathers, uncles, and brothers will keep heading out, fishing deeper and deeper waters, to pull the last sharks they can find. 


Half a world away, five stories above Hong Kong’s bustling streets on a pleasant spring afternoon, Yannis Chan looks stressed. Her white wedding dress billows out in ruffles and silver accents, but her mouth is pursed into a tense little line. She looks both radiant and irritated as she moves through the long banquet hall, with its kitschy silver chandeliers and enormous flat-screen TVs that loop wedding photos of Chan and her new husband, Joel. 

Ten months of planning have led to this day, and the twenty-nine-year-old travel agent has been going nonstop. In the morning she attended traditional tea ceremonies with her parents and in-laws before running across town for a document-signing ceremony. Soon comes the most crucial part of the day—a meal of several courses, during which she will change into four different dresses and slowly visit with each guest. She will toast, she will smile, but mostly she will pose for seemingly endless pictures. The banquet isn’t yet underway, and just a few friends and family are milling around while the older guests are upstairs playing mahjong (it is traditional for older family members to gamble before the banquet). One might think Chan and her new husband could take a quick break, perhaps even a nap. Instead they hustle over to a kind of flying loveseat that will lift them into the air and transport them awkwardly through the hall to a song from Disney’s animated movie Aladdin.

Many Hong Kong wedding banquets are equal parts celebration, performance, and exercise in mianzi, or face, a deeply ingrained part of Chinese culture reflected in the wealth on display as well as the gifts and honors bestowed on friends, family, and guests. Decorations, clothing, cutlery, food—all of it is meant as a spectacle and a symbol of wealth and good luck, and all of it confers mianzi.

Which means only the best food. The Chan wedding, for example, includes a dozen dishes (the portions are small, since it is bad luck for guests not to clean their plates), served with the usual lineup of luxury ingredients, including duck, abalone, bird’s nest, and, of course, shark-fin soup. Elki Lam, who helped organize the Chans’ wedding, has an encyclopedic knowledge of every dish and its significance for the couple’s future. She says nothing is without meaning in a Chinese wedding—dates, dishes, the colors and numbers of the decorations—and nothing is random. Most important of all is the food.

Joel and Yannis Chan at their wedding in Hong Kong.

Friends and family are served shark-fin soup at a wedding banquet in Hong Kong. The soup is one of the most important traditional Chinese dishes and is served as a way of showing respect to guests at special occasions.

At least to some. In the few minutes between the loveseat ride and the dress change, Yannis says she didn’t concern herself much with the menu. She left it up to her mother, an elegant, statuesque woman who tells me she didn’t give much thought to the shark-fin soup, either. She simply got it because that’s what’s done. “It could be changed for something else,” Chan’s mother says. “It’s not important to have shark fin on the menu. But you’d have to have the same level of rare ingredients. Equivalent to how rare shark fins are.” Lam says the banquet hall claims to offer shark-free options, but when she shows me the menu choices, each dish includes shark-fin soup. Just as the culture of Mexican fishermen has a sort of momentum to it, so too does the Chinese wedding culture.

To understand this better, the next day we go to a wedding convention, where brides-to-be peruse various companies’ offerings for their special day. Among the dressmakers, bakers, wedding planners, and representatives of every other profession in the industry, there are the so-called “Lucky Ladies”—older women hired to keep the wedding day running smoothly and to manage a demanding extended family. They also work to ensure that nothing unlucky or damaging to mianzi happens.

Three of them are sitting side by side at the table, with quiet, piercing stares. I make chit-chat with one of them while the other two size me up. I’m told that not serving shark fin would risk immediate scorn from the wider family. In a worst-case scenario, an irritated family member might even call the mother of the groom the next day, asking if the young man is so poor he can’t afford decent soup. Such a loss of face would be excruciating.

“It’s very common that people criticize about no shark-fin soup. They would criticize just after the banquet or right there among themselves,” says one Lucky Lady, shaking her head disapprovingly. “Many people come to the wedding only for the shark-fin soup, not the other stuff.”

The cultural value of shark-fin soup isn’t pervasive in China. Historically, the dish was limited to southern China while the rest of the country had no access to, or interest in, such exotic seafood. But just as Hong Kong is struggling with the ethics of shark fin, the rest of China is embracing it.

Just across the channel from Hong Kong is Guangzhou, a bustling factory town on the mainland where skyscrapers, neon lights, and ubiquitous TV screens give way to drab, concrete sprawl. Factories are everywhere, and locals are suspicious of foreigners. But if you know where to go, you can find entire streets dedicated to dried seafood like fish bladder, sea cucumbers, and of course shark fin. 

One building, as large as a shopping mall but without ornament or color, seems dedicated entirely to shark fin. Inside is a wide-open area surrounded by stalls and rooms for workers lining the sides. Every room appears to be packed floor to ceiling with bags of shark fin; piles of dried fin are scattered across the floor as women sort through them, separating the highest quality from the lowest. These finds are not bound for Hong Kong but headed inland.

When photographer Dominic Bracco and our translator visited the Guangzhou fish market, hoping to observe this segment of the fin industry, they were met with suspicion, even aggression. In one room, their appearance stopped all work. After a few seconds, a group of workers quietly surrounded them, saying nothing. The youngest, a small man with a tight haircut, clearly in charge, stepped forward.

“You are not welcome here! We don’t want you here!” he shouted. Then he looked at the translator. “Why did you bring him here!” he demanded.

Similar scenes played out for Bracco and our translator wherever they went until, in another building similarly packed with fins, one of the workers overheard them discussing Mexican sea cucumbers. The mood changed, the workers smiled, assuming they were importers. A man approached them and offered his card. “If you ever see shark fin in Mexico, tell me and I’ll come and buy them,” he said.


Baja California, 2014.

Like any commodity, the price of shark fin is partly subject to the rise and fall of demand. As supply dwindles and prices go up, the rush for fish can accelerate a population collapse. If sharks disappear from the market, consumers will eventually find a new favorite seafood. Such collapses have happened before with fish like sardines, cod, and swordfish. These are often followed by fishing bans and attempts to revive the species. But in emerging markets like Mexico’s, fishing laws are hard to enforce and shark fishermen are more concerned with prestige and tradition than regulations. If the sharks disappear in one area, the locals just motor farther out. If the price drops, they simply catch more fish to make up the difference. Meanwhile, in China, demand has been driven by ambivalent consumers deferring to custom, as well as by rapacious mainlanders eager to sample an emperor’s delicacy they can now afford.

These forces will continue independent of government edict. A few Chinese will boycott fin while others stubbornly refuse. Prices will drop and fishermen will work even harder—legally and illegally—to make up the difference.

One solution may be compromise. Many species of shark are critically threatened, but others, like the blue shark, are not. Could there be a way to harvest only sustainable populations and market them as eco-friendly? That path won’t be easy: Sharks are difficult to track and manage, because they migrate across vast distances, and current sustainable-fishing networks in the US are marred by corruption and fraud, two problems that plague both China and Mexico. Still, such measures would offer an alternative that might save this threatened species while allowing some cultural practices to continue.

Certainly that’s what Vinelle Leung wants. Leung, a bubbly twenty-seven-year-old, has already started planning her wedding for next spring. Sitting in her Hong Kong apartment, she delightfully recounts how she and her fiancé picked a wedding day of February 20 because, according to Chinese tradition, it was the luckiest one they could afford (weddings are much cheaper on unlucky days). She explains that she doesn’t believe in that sort of thing but figures she’s better safe than sorry.

Like many Hong Kong residents her age, she will proudly boycott shark-fin soup at the primary banquet, opting for winter melon instead. But she will also have a smaller banquet for the bride’s family at her grandfather’s seafood restaurant. Her mother has already made it clear that she won’t risk the shame of skipping shark fin.

“They would say, ‘Your daughter or your son-in-law did not have a good wedding. They do not know how to respect their family.’ She’s quite scared about these things,” Leung says. Then she pauses uncomfortably. “Honestly, if she’s very insistent or my grandfather is very insistent, I will just let them do it.”

In the meantime, Guarepo and Kin Kin Lucero laugh at the thought of giving up the hunt for sharks. Guarepo’s father was a pearl diver in the Sea of Cortez before the oyster beds there disappeared. His family has moved numerous times—fleeing fishery collapse, looking for better waters. He is an outsider in Cabo San Lázaro, but the fishermen here have accepted him, partly because he’s fun to talk and drink with and partly because they all agree he’s a little crazy. 

On the water, Guarepo’s like a 250-pound kid, laughing and singing and scolding his fish as his tiny panga skids across enormous waves. Even if he makes less money with fishing, he’s on the open water, watching the weather, feeling the breeze on his face. He knows he might make more money cleaning toilets or doing repairs for the hotels in Cabo. Once, for a short time, he even worked hauling rocks in the mountains a few miles inland.

“I made it two months. I felt like a slave,” he says as we sit in his makeshift kitchen, eating lobster tacos on his day off. “There, it’s work every day. Here you wake up, one day there’s wind, one day it’s calm. The weather changes. It’s freedom.”

Kin Kin agrees. “I’m thirty-six years old,” he adds. “All I know how to do is fish. So I’m just going to keep on fishing.”

Outside, the wind is picking up and the seabirds are beginning to circle as another fisherman comes in from a good day out.

A view of Cabo San Lázaro, Baja California.


Reporting for this project was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

2 Comments

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Ryan's picture
Ryan · 12 months ago

Dude you gotta tell the story about what happened to the fisherman later, or will it be in the book??

 

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Lucy's picture
Lucy · 8 months ago

Pretty cool story.

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