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.
Aw is the founding director of OceanNEnvironment, a charity organization registered in Australia to protect coral reefs, promote bio-diversity and reduce the impact of man-made pollution through research and expeditions. Much of the money spent is his own, earned through his work as a photographer, author and publisher.
He heads a "Say No" to shark's fin campaign in Singapore and Malaysia, which also has a large Chinese population, creating educational leaflets and videos, and organizing roadshows and school visits to get his message across. He plans to take his campaign to China.
According to conservation group Sea Shepherd, the booming Chinese economy is proving to be deadly for sharks because it has spurred greater demand for fins. "As a result, the oceans are literally being scoured clean of sharks. Poachers are invading national marine parks like the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and Cocos Island in Costa Rica to catch sharks," its website says.
Sea Shepherd estimates that over 7,257 tonnes of shark fins are processed each year -- and 181,487 tonnes of shark carcasses are discarded at sea. It says 18 species are already listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
"Every year humans slaughter over 100 million sharks yet we depict them as vicious and blood-thirsty killers," the group asserts. "No more than 12 people a year are killed by sharks worldwide."
But in largely ethnic Chinese Singapore, the absence of shark's fin soup at a wedding menu can start guests' tongues wagging about how "cheap" the couple or their parents are. Even environmentally conscious newlyweds find it difficult to avoid serving shark's fin soup. Otherwise, the family might lose face.
A Singaporean civil servant who recently married a naval officer says they had contemplated not serving shark's fin at their wedding in a luxury hotel, but did not have the heart to go ahead.
"You don't want to put your parents in that kind of position," she says, but expresses hope that "after this generation [the practice] might die off."
Like most ethnic Chinese kids in Asia, Aw grew up expecting shark's fin soup to be served on special occasions.
"Mum used to order the dish especially during Chinese New Year, birthdays and weddings," he says. But at his own 1996 wedding, Aw demanded that the dish be taken off the menu, and whenever he is served shark's fin soup at dinners, he seizes the occasion to wage culinary propaganda.
"I will politely decline and give a short spiel on the wastage and cruelty in procurement of shark fins. In fact in Chinese culture, cruelty begets ill fortune, bad luck and a sentence to hell after death!" he says.
Crabs are OK
Aw's travel schedule is daunting. After a holiday in Fiji with his wife and son in January, he went to Phuket, Thailand to view damage caused by last December's earthquake and tsunami. Then came trips to South Australia, Bangkok, the Maldives and Malaysia. For the rest of the year, his work will take him to South Africa, Fiji again, Tahiti, China and the US. Early next year Aw will lead a nature tour of Antarctica.
Aw's advertising and publishing skills will come in handy since it takes a lot of media savvy to change the mindsets of consumers and fight the formidable business interests behind the shark's fin industry.
He used to do ad campaigns for clients like consumer products giant Sanyo, diamond producer DeBeers and funeral home Singapore Casket, whose slogan was: "We'll be the last to let you down!"
He believes working for a total ban on finning won't work.
"Shark's fin will only become more expensive. The Mafia will profit, just like drugs," he says, stressing that self-restraint by consumers is the key.
In his campaign to reduce the consumption of shark's fin soup, Aw has largely given up on the older generation of mainland and overseas Chinese, counting on younger people instead to take up his cause.
"I believe in measurable results. Thus I hope to recruit 10,000 young ambassadors for sharks in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and China by 2007."
While Aw bemoans the negative image of sharks since the the 1975 hit movie Jaws, he has called his young children Jonah Aw Seng and Joelle Aw Seng so that letters in their names spell out the title of the film.
He likens shark's fin eating to smoking, and hopes to have the same impact among the youth as successful anti-tobacco campaigns -- although he once did ads for Dunhill cigarettes.
"It is now seen as uncool, unsociable to smoke. I hope to achieve the same kind of behavior change, attitude change towards consuming shark fins."
After years of photographing sharks and other fish in their natural environment, Aw's eating habits have changed, but he is not a fundamentalist in his food choices.
"I don't eat fish, but do enjoy crabs," he says.