California lawmakers have proposed a ban on the possession and sale of shark fins — the key ingredient of shark fin soup, an ancient and prized Chinese dish. The law is intended to curtail the shark finning industry, which involves the brutal hacking off of the dorsal and pectoral fins of millions of live sharks each year.
But is there something to be gained from eating shark fins that outweighs the gross environmental harm caused by obtaining them?
For centuries in China, shark fins were believed to contain the essence of virility, wealth and power. Apparently, though, those qualities are tasteless: Even their biggest fans admit that the fins themselves don't have much flavor. Rather than being delicious, shark fins are loved for their texture, which is often described as "chewy," "sinewy" and "stringy." Texture is highly valued in general in Asian cuisine, but even so, probably doesn't justify shark slaughter all by itself.
As for nutrition, according to resources at the Food and Nutrition Information Center, the fins don't have much of that. They are mostly made of cartilage, which is largely devoid of vitamins.
Alternative medicine proponents say shark cartilage has cancer-fighting properties, a claim that has its origins in a mistaken belief that sharks do not get cancer. They do, though, and according to the National Cancer Institute, only one randomized clinical study on shark cartilage as a human cancer treatment has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and it showed the cartilage to be ineffective.
"We tested whether a pharmaceutical that was an extract of shark cartilage would increase survival in lung cancer patients," said Charles Lu, an oncologist at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston who led that study in 2010. He and his colleagues supplemented normal chemotherapy treatment with doses of the shark extract in a randomized subset of 397 patients. "Unfortunately we saw no improvement in survival in [that subset]," Lu told Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.
In fact, shark fins can be extremely unhealthy. Like many other fish products, they have been known to contain dangerously high levels of mercury. Mercury comes from ocean pollution, and, at the top of the food chain, sharks retain higher levels of the substance than most marine creatures.
A 2001 report by the watchdog group Wild Aid found that levels of the poisonous heavy metal found in shark fins from Hong Kong — which get distributed to cities all over the world — were 42 times higher than safe limits for humans.
So, in short, health risks, rather than benefits, will be eliminated with the passing of the California ban.
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Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.