It's been about 20 years since Michael Aw last had shark's fin soup, but he'll never forget the taste and texture of the pricey Asian delicacy.
"Eek, it's like eating fingernails and hair!" says the Singapore-born marine environmentalist who is based in Sydney but considers the world's oceans his home -- and Asia's banquet tables his battleground.
Aw is an activist at the forefront of a campaign against the consumption of shark's fin soup, which is little more than boiled cartilage, by educating Asians, the youth in particular, about the cruelty behind this mainstay of Chinese cuisine.
Shark conservationists scored an important victory last week when Hong Kong's brand-new Disneyland, due to open in September, succumbed to international public pressure and decided to scrap the dish from its wedding banquet menu. The US$3.2 billion theme park admitted it could not find an "environmentally sustainable" source for the fins.
Aw congratulated the entertainment empire for the decision and said the Disneyland controversy turned out to be a boon because "never before have sharks received such global attention" regarding the fin trade.
He called upon the Disney group to "develop an alliance" with "like-minded individuals and institutions to achieve the greater objective" of discouraging shark's fin consumption.
Aw says there is no such thing as sustainable sources for the dish. The fins are usually hacked off captured live sharks, which are dumped back into the sea where they bleed to death or get devoured by other marine life.
Environmental activists say millions of sharks are slaughtered every year through this practice called "finning" to meet demand from Asian restaurants and hotels, threatening species that took eons to evolve with rapid extinction.
"In many areas in Southeast Asia, they are, so to speak, regionally extinct," says the 49-year-old, bespectacled former advertising man with an easy smile who turns dead serious when discussing the fate of sharks.
"The single most devastating reason for their demise is the demand for shark's fin soup," says Aw, whose own ecological awakening began after he took up scuba diving in 1981. His first underwater encounter with the sleek and powerful figure of a shark in the wild left him "in awe."
"They are like the Ferraris of the ocean," says the conservationist who now makes a living as an underwater photographer, author and publisher of Singapore-based magazines Asian Geographic and Scuba Diver, when he's not leading ecological tours in places like the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica.
Aw warns that if entire shark species are wiped out, "the ocean is unbalanced" by the absence of an important element in the marine food chain.
`Cruelty begets ill fortune'
Over a recent lunch of barbecued pork and wanton noodles in Singapore -- he no longer eats fish -- Aw tells reporters that shark's fin has no real nutritional value despite its high cost. But for mainland and overseas Chinese, they are a symbol of prosperity. Upmarket restaurants in Singapore charge US$50 or more for a single-serving bowl.
Nowhere is the dish consumed more conspicuously than at Chinese wedding banquets across Asia where "braised superior shark's fin" soup comes after the appetizers, signaling the start of serious eating.
The soup is thick, chunky and bland -- and like another expensive delicacy, abalone, is eaten as much for its texture as its taste -- so diners usually spike it with a few drops of red vinegar.