Silicon Valley Is Engineering Imitation Shark Fins to Replace the Real Thing
For many, collagen is best known for its use in cosmetic products from lip plumpers to wrinkle fillers. But for a new Silicon Valley start-up, the stretchy connective protein may be the key to helping save the declining shark population.
New Wave Foods, a San Francisco–based seafood company, plans to engineer collagen from genetically modified yeast to produce imitation shark fins, which are typically used as the main ingredient in the Chinese dish shark fin soup.
“We have been talking with hotel managers and catering managers and they are interested—there is a big push to remove shark fins from menus,” Jenny Kaehms, cofounder of New Wave Foods, told The Guardian.
The bioengineer said the imitation shark fins, structured like the real things and slated to hit the market next summer, are part of the company’s broader aim to reduce the industry’s reliance on fishing as a source of seafood. She and cofounders Dominique Barnes and Michelle Wolf are also working to develop an algae-based shrimp substitute that they hope to debut by early 2016.
The demand for shark fin—considered a delicacy, particularly in China—has fueled a global trade in which sharks are routinely caught, robbed of their fins, and dumped back into the ocean to die. Some species have experienced a more than 90 percent decline in population, partly as a result of the practice. Finning, which is banned in 10 U.S. states, including California and most recently Texas, has resulted in 100 million shark deaths each year, researchers at Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University estimated in 2013.
Studies show the appetite for shark fin could be on the decline. Eighty-five percent of Chinese consumers surveyed in 2010 by the conservation group WildAid said they’d given up shark fin within the previous two years, and a majority of them said awareness campaigns contributed to their reason for eliminating it from their diet. WildAid also reported significant declines in sales and prices from shark fin vendors around China.
For that reason, WildAid spokesperson Andrew Harmon says New Wave Foods’ new substitute might be too little, too late. “The timing strikes me as incredibly poor,” he told a local NBC station last week. “The younger generation is really moving away from shark fin.”