As someone who has worked for Understanding Animal Research I am aware of the activities of animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) who campaign to stop all medical research involving animals. This is despite overwhelming evidence that such research has contributed to many of the drug discoveries and medical advances that have helped to end and alleviate human misery.
In the USA, PETA is currently piggybacking off another human tragedy. Days after a man on a spearfishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico suffered a shark attack requiring between 700 and 800 stitches PETA launched a new advertising campaign. The ad shows what PETA describes as "a human drumstick" hanging out of a shark's mouth with the tagline "Payback Is Hell, Go Vegan". The ad will be featured on billboards and benches near Anna Maria Island where the attack occured.
Sick and misanthropic as this may be, PETA is at least consistent. It has also thrown in its lot with those campaigning to save the world's sharks from ending up as soup. In 2010, Hawaii became the first state to ban the possession, sale and distribution of shark fins. Similar laws have been enacted in Washington and Oregon. Last month, the California State Senate approved a bill that would ban the sale, trade and possession of shark fins inside state borders. The bill has the full backing of animal welfare groups such PETA, WildAid and The Humane Society and a host of celebrity backers such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Edward Norton, James Cameron, and musician Jackson Browne
In the UK campaigning celebrities such as British uber chef Gordon Ramsay have joined in the call to ban sharks being killed for the dinner table. His recent TV special Shark Bait investigated finning, the method used to source the key ingredient for shark fin soup. The fin is often removed while the shark is still alive. The carcass, worth a fraction of the value of the fin, is discarded at sea. In his infamous foul-mouthed style, but acting as a moral caped crusader, Ramsay and his film crew barge into shops in London's Chinatown trying to find the perfectly legal fins as though on the trail of contraband.
Shark fin soup is a delicacy that was traditionally reserved for special occasions. It has been part of Chinese culture for centuries. For years, only rich Chinese, mostly in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, consumed it. However, China's dramatic growth in prosperity has seen an equally dramatic rise in standards of living, especially among the middle classes. This has put shark fin soup within reach of many more people and demand has grown accordingly.
To satisfy this demand, fishermen traverse the oceans in search of sharks. Fins can sell at 70 times the value of a kilo of tuna. Space is limited on fishing vessels. Shark bodies are bulky and worth almost nothing as there is little or no demand for the meat. Finning is also carried out when sharks are "by-catch" (by accident) during fishing for tuna and swordfish.
Conservationists believe finning is exacerbating a critical decline in global shark populations. But there are more than 400 species of sharks. To claim that sharks are on the verge of extinction is headline-grabbing, but an inaccurate generalisation equivalent to claiming that all fish are endangered.
In fact the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) lists only three sharks whose consumption is subject to regulation: the great white, basking and whale sharks. In addition according to Dr Giam Choo Hoo, the longest-serving member of CITES: "The perception that it is common practice to kill sharks for only their fins - and to cut them off while the sharks are still alive - is wrong. The vast majority of fins in the market are taken from sharks after their death."
Even if one doesn't like the taste or idea of shark fin soup, what is at stake is the individual's right to choose what to eat within the confines of the law, regardless of whether its production is offensive to some campaigners, celebrities or politicians.
The attempt to prohibit shark finning is an example of our illiberal times, where private activities such as eating are fair game for criticism and moral posturing. It's an easy target for organisations such as PETA who have lost the public argument over the use of animals for other ends such as medical research and are looking for cheap victories elsewhere. It also reflects the difficulty we have in understanding where our food comes from and our estrangement from its production. Finning may be uncomfortable to watch but how easy would it be for most of us to watch what happens in an ordinary abattoir?
Food is a matter of personal taste. I tasted shark fin soup once, and that will be the only time. Yet if these culinary culture warriors get their way the choice of whether we try shark fin soup or not will be taken away from us.
I will be addressing some of the issues raised in the piece in the discussion, Eating ethics: are some foods morally bad for you? at the Battle of Ideas 2011, 29 & 30 October, London.