After a summer holiday in rural Hawkes Bay I was hanging out for an Auckland yum cha so on my first Sunday back I took my family to the Viaduct's Grand Harbour restaurant. As is our routine, we had something steamed (prawn and spinach dumplings), something crunchy (fried squid) and something puffy (barbecued pork buns) washed down with lashings of tea.
Then we stepped outside into the sunshine only to be confronted by a man dressed in a shark suit holding a placard about shark fin soup - a subject which I must confess I've not contemplated in depth before. I did wonder, though, if I'm a magnet for strange things happening at lunch since my last family outing ended in a discussion about the suitability or otherwise of imagery of children smoking.
"Did you see the man advertising shark fin soup?" I asked my nine-year-old a little later.
"He wasn't advertising it. He was trying to ban it," she replied. It was true.
I was only joking about the advertising thing.
Shark fin soup, it seems, is the new factory farming. (By the way, Save Animals From Exploitation's poignant new television advertisement, which made me regret eating those pork buns, is well worth watching.) The practice known as shark finning is the latest animal welfare and environmental issue to grab the headlines, and a group called Shark Fin Free Auckland is campaigning to have shark fin dishes deleted from the menus of local restaurants - and to have shark finning banned in New Zealand; at last count just 390 people had signed their petition - well short of the goal of 5000.
"Shark finning, where the fins are removed and the body dumped overboard, is illegal in Europe, Australia, the US and Canada. The United Nations is currently seeking an international ban. But here in New Zealand, the fishing industry is free to cut off the fins of over 112 species of sharks found in our waters," says Shark Fin Free Auckland's website. It's claimed that the sharks are often still alive when they're thrown finless back into the ocean to die. Good luck enjoying your soup knowing that's how the signature ingredient may have been acquired.
Shark Fin Free Auckland lists six restaurants as "main offenders" on its "Auckland Wall of Shame". One of the restaurants waxes lyrical about the controversial delicacy: "This soup was the creation of a scholar from the Qing Dynasty ... The soup smelt so great that even the Buddha could not resist the temptation ... This soup is Chinese delicacy well known for its rich taste and nutrient content. This soup contains over 30 main ingredients, 12 condiments including shark fin, abalone, scallops, sea cucumber, ginseng etc."
But there's clearly an appetite for change no matter how deeply rooted this dish is in the nation's culinary history. Last year China agreed to ban shark fin soup for official banquets even though it is well accepted as "a symbol of wealth and social status across China".
Since even the Chinese are taking a stance on this, we've decided to take a small step to support the sharks too. Despite our weakness for Sunday yum cha we'll be avoiding any restaurants that continue to serve that unethical and inhumane dish that is shark fin soup.
What's your attitude towards shark fin soup? Were you aware how its key ingredient is often sourced? Do you know of any local Chinese restaurants that don't serve shark fin?