Fins, fillets and folklore: the enduring allure of shark meat in Egypt's historic Suez

At the bustling Al Ansari fish market, the illegal trade in shark meat and fins persists, reflecting the complex interplay of tradition, economy and ecology in the city

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Nestled in the heart of Suez, one of Egypt's most historic cities, the Al Ansari fish market has been supplying fresh catches from the Red Sea to residents and beyond for decades.

The market's vibrant display of exotic fish, from the geometric boxfish to the crocodile fish – which resembles a cartoon version of the fearsome predator – is a testament to the rich biodiversity of the region.

Species travel north from the Red Sea and are caught in the Gulf of Suez. The canal's northern connection to the Mediterranean also adds to the variety of fish at Al Ansari.

Amid the myriad colours and shapes, one offering stands out: shark meat, regularly consumed by many Suez residents who consider it a delicacy.

“Suez residents have eaten shark meat for generations. I personally love to eat it, it's sweet and delicious,” Mohamed Ali Barghout, 49, a ship captain and longtime resident, tells The National.

“Those who have a taste for it like a relatively young fish and they won't buy a mature one, because when it's young, the meat has the strongest flavour and is at its most tender.”

Despite being protected under Egyptian environmental law, sharks find their way into local fishermen's trawling nets by accident and, subsequently, on to the tables of the Al Ansari market, according to Ibrahim Mohamed, a 43-year-old fishmonger with three medium-sized sharks among his impressive display.

Other stalls similarly display various species of shark, from smaller hammerheads to tiger and zebra sharks, all native to the Red Sea.

While smaller sharks are sold to locals, larger ones are often chopped up and sold as generic fish fillets to suppliers outside Suez, including some of Cairo's seafood restaurants.

“I think many people from Cairo would be surprised by how much of the fish fillets they eat at restaurants is shark meat. I sell a fair bit to suppliers in Cairo,” Mr Mohamed says.

“But you can't sell mature shark meat to Suez residents, they know the taste too well. I, for example, can tell you the age and species of any fish that I put in my mouth. It's not a talent, it's just because we grow up around the sea and eat a lot of fish all our lives.”

Mr Mohamed acknowledges the illegal nature of hunting sharks but points to the challenges of enforcement.

“It would be very difficult to check every net of every fisherman that goes through the Gulf of Suez each day,” he explains.

The demand for shark meat, rooted in Suez's culinary traditions, further complicates the issue. According to fish vendors who spoke to The National during a recent visit, demand for the meat is steady, logically necessitating a more reliable supply than the odd sharks being pulled up accidentally in nets.

“I can't speak for any fishermen who go out to hunt for sharks specifically because that is not my business, but I can tell you that many fishermen are afraid of them,” explains Ramadan Monsef, 45, who owns and operates a fish-cleaning stall at the market.

He recounts an urban myth often retold at the market, detailing the discovery of a man's leg inside a tiger shark's stomach.

His job is to clean fresh fish bought by market-goers of their guts, bones and other unwanted parts. A few times a week, he is given sharks to clean and gut for customers.

The allure of shark in Suez extends beyond its taste, as evidenced by Mr Monsef's collection of dried shark fins.

From inside his small store, he pulls out a rag on which he lays out several fins ranging in size from small to medium, selling for between 200 and 400 Egyptian pounds (about $4.25-$8.50) apiece. The fins are sought after by male customers as a supposed remedy for erectile dysfunction, despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting this claim.

The trade in shark fins at the fish market, while small-scale, echoes the global shark fin trade that has pushed many species to the brink of extinction. The demand for shark fin soup, a luxury dish in Chinese cuisine, has led to the cruel practice of shark finning, where sharks are caught, their fins cut off, and their bodies discarded back into the ocean.

Mr Monsef says Chinese businessmen visit him to buy shark fins directly. “I reserve the really good varieties for them. I have sold some for above 1,200 pounds,” he says.

The Al Ansari market, with its colourful displays and hum of daily activity, encapsulates the essence of Suez – a city where the sea is not just sustenance but a way of life. The shark meat trade, woven into the community's fabric, serves as evidence of the resilience and adaptability of a people who have long relied on the Red Sea's bounty.

As the world grapples with the urgent need to protect marine ecosystems, Suez's sharks serve as a reminder that conservation efforts must account for the complex social, economic and cultural factors shaping our interactions with the natural world.

Updated: May 17, 2024, 6:00 PM