In an effort to decrease the strain on wild marine populations from fisheries, a Silicon Valley startup, New Wave Foods, is using new biotechnology capabilities to promote a new version of “sustainable seafood.” The company announced that it’s found the key to combatting the shark finning industry – creating sustainable imitation shark meat. In the new age of genetically modified foods, stem cells, and 3-D printers, alternatives to previously harmful and unethical practices in the food industry now seems feasible. In the case of the shark finning industry, it has been driven by demand for an ancient Chinses delicacy – shark fin soup. Shark finning is the practice of catching shark, slicing off their fins and throwing their body overboard to drown and sink to the ocean floor. The shark fins are served in a soup which holds cultural significance by showing prestige and status among those who consume it. However, this ancient tradition is archaic and cannot sustainably or ethically persist in the 21st century. For years, scientists and conservationists have pushed for better consumer choices and implemented awareness campaigns about the destructiveness of shark finning. Additionally, the exceedingly high Mercury and pollution content in shark meat poses a serious health threat to those who consume the “delicacy.” With more sophisticated fishing technology, it is estimated that between 73 and 100 million sharks are killed in the finning industry alone each year, thus contributing to a rapid 90% decline in shark populations. As an alternative to using the actual shark fins, New Wave Foods has genetically modified yeast to produce collagen which is then further manipulated to produce imitation shark meat.
The idea of “shark fin soup without the fins” is an alluring alternative, yet is controversial among many conservationists. The company saw even though that facts proves a type of food is bad for your health; it does little to change eating habits. Shark Fin imitation products from this company are scheduled to hit the market in summer 2016. Jenny Kaehms, bioengineer and co-founder, says that after talking with businesses and restaurants in the U.S. she sees, “a big push to remove shark fin from the menus.” In the U.S. this could be due to the growing state led bans on shark finning and sale of fins, where 10 highly populated and influential states have already passed such laws. They believe that they found a niche in the market – seafood lovers who are concerned about the environmental impacts of fishing but unrelenting to change eating habits. According to an article on New Wave Foods published by TakePart they hope to, “reduce the industry’s reliance on fishing as a source of seafood,” by creating a greener alternative.
At first glance, the idea of transforming the shark fin industry to a sustainable and ethical model sounds like a conservationist’s dream. Admittedly, this strategy could thrive in the United States where there is mounting concern over preserving shark species and sustainable seafood sources. Instead of eating true shark fin, this imitation could still allow Asian Americans to preserve tradition but in a more sustainable manner. However, the United States is by no means the largest consumer of shark fins. Chinese Cuisine expert, Fuchsia Dunlop, argues that on a global scale more still needs to be done because, “eating shark’s fin is about showing off and spending lots of money and eating something rare and exotic.” As one could imagine, in Asian countries where shark fin soup is more commonly consumed, a substitute shark fin does not hold the same cultural meaning as the ‘rare and exotic’ real fins, so their product would be much less effective in international markets. Many people, such as Dunlop admit that it is a, “noble aim,” but does not address all angles of the larger issue and may not be as well received outside of the U.S.
Usually the problem of the industry itself does not strictly lie in the countries who sell and consume shark fins. The export of fins benefits the countries who catch and slaughter them, which means that to disintegrate the industry it has to become much less profitable. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN found that in 2011 imports of shark fins totaled to $438.6m. Currently the top exporters (and catchers) of shark are: Indonesia, India, Spain, Taiwan, Argentina, Mexico, United States of America, Malaysia, Pakistan, Brazil, Japan, France, New Zealand, Thailand, Portugal, Nigeria, Islamic Republic of Iran, Sri Lanka, Republic of Korea, Yemen. The United States has state based laws, and some federal regulation, but fails to have hardline legislation condemning the sale and trade of sharks, thereby their fins. It is also important to note that shark finning is only a fraction of the threats to sharks. Contributing to overfishing is the high bycatch rate of many commercial fishing nets that tend to trap large quantities of shark and marine mammals; the preservation of sharks only begins with an end to finning. It is more than just tradition, it is convincing these exporters to invest in sustainable products like those of New Wave Foods, instead of ecologically harmful practices.
Even though a WildAid study shows that younger generations are moving away from shark fin soup, conservationists believe it may be, “too little, too late” as millions of sharks have and continue to be slaughtered for this delicacy. Additionally, some worry that by not condemning the entire premise and practice of shark finning, the company may open the doors to increased demand in shark fin soup. This increased demand could theoretically result in a problem of differentiating between the real and fake shark meat. Despite all of the negative outcomes that are possible, New Wave Foods should be applauded for their effort to change the shark fin industry and attempt to protect shark populations.
Though the company is pushing for their imitation shark fin to be a success, their algae-based shrimp have the potential to be a true game changer. Due to high volumes of pollution, bioaccumulation or the accumulation of pollutants and plastic in each link in the food chain, poses additional health threats to humans ingesting seafood. Shrimp is, “the largest volume of consumed seafood in the U.S.” says Kaehms which is why there is significant opportunity to replace toxic, overfished shrimp with a healthier, more sustainable version. The shrimp product is poised to hit the market in early 2016, where Kaehms hopes her company can make the “biggest splash” on people and the environment.
The overall goal of New Wave Foods is extremely important, and the development of technology to create sustainable and healthier food could have profound effects redefining “sustainable seafood”. However, there is a good chance that the larger economic and cultural problems associated with shark finning will still exist and threaten sharks even with the development of imitation shark meat. The effort and ingenuity on behalf of this company is to be admired and could be the face of a seafood revolution.