Eating Shark in the U.S.: Everything You Need to Know

Shark meat at a fish market in South Korea
Josh Jensen / Getty Images

Whether you're a recreational angler or a culinary enthusiast, you might be wondering about shark meat—whether it's safe to eat, how to prepare it, and even whether it's legal or not. 

Though it is far from the most popular seafood, there is a growing market for shark meat in the United States, which is prepared and served in many ways and under various names. Species such as mako, thresher, and blacktip are among those that are fished for their meat.

Alternate names for shark include flake, dogfish, grayfish, and whitefish. Imitation crab (surimi) and fish and chips are sometimes made from shark meat as well.

One misconception about shark is that it is illegal, which isn't quite true. Shark meat is in fact quite legal in the United States. What is illegal, however, is the practice of finning, which we'll describe in a moment.

Mercury in Shark Meat

Probably the main concern when it comes to consuming shark meat is the fact that shark has one of the highest concentrations of mercury of any seafood.

Mercury is a metal that is extremely toxic to humans. The effects of mercury poisoning can include blindness, loss of hair, teeth, nails, skin peeling, and kidney failure. 

Unfortunately, one of the most common ways that people ingest mercury is by eating fish and seafood, especially large fish such as swordfish, tuna, and shark.

How does mercury get into these fish? What happens is, power plants burn coal, and the resulting smoke, which contains mercury, enters the atmosphere and is carried into the oceans by rain. Fish then absorb this mercury through their gills. 

However, unlike other toxins, mercury isn't excreted as quickly as it is consumed, which causes it to build up in the fishes' bodies. And as smaller fish are eaten by bigger fish, the bigger fish not only absorb their own mercury from the waters but also that of the fish they eat. Thus it is the biggest fish of all, the swordfish, tuna, and sharks, that end up with the highest concentration of mercury in their flesh.

Which means that when humans eat shark, they effectively become the top of the mercury food chain. This is why the FDA recommends avoiding the consumption of shark meat.

Shark Meat Can Smell of Ammonia

In many ways, shark meat is similar to other large ocean fish like swordfish or marlin. It's a firm, white fish with meaty flesh. But it differs from other large seafood in one key respect, and that is the presence of a chemical called urea.

Sharks' bodies produce urea to regulate the difference between their body fluids and the seawater they live in, through a process called osmosis. For the culinary-minded, if you've ever seen the way salt pulls water out of a steak or a vegetable like sliced eggplant, this is an example of osmosis.

In sharks, urea helps ensure that their cells don't absorb or excrete too much water but instead maintain the proper balance. In fact, most animals, including humans, produce and excrete urea as part of their normal metabolisms.

But when a shark dies, the urea in its blood breaks down and is converted to ammonia, which has a strong, unpleasant odor. There's no truly effective way to remove this odor from the fish, so chefs who prepare shark have learned how to mask it, either by brining it or marinating it. A typical marinade might include milk, lemon juice, or vinegar. 

The trick with using milk is to ensure it's full-fat milk, since ammonia is fat-soluble, and then discard the milk after soaking for a couple of hours.

Preparing Shark Meat

Like other firm-fleshed white fish, shark can be grilled, pan-seared, baked, or even made into ceviche. It's sold both in the fillet, which are boneless cuts taken parallel to the spine, and steaks, which are bone-in cuts made by slicing directly across the fish.

When cooking shark, the standard fish guideline of 10 minutes per inch of thickness is useful to bear in mind.

Shark is a low-fat fish so it can dry out quickly when cooked over a very hot grill. This can be prevented by poaching the shark briefly in milk, wine, or stock, and then finishing the cooking very quickly over a hot grill.

Pan-frying is also a good way to cook shark steaks. Heat some oil to shimmering in a cast-iron skillet, then add the steaks. Lower the heat to medium and cook for 5 to 6 minutes per side (turning just once), depending on thickness. 

The steaks or fillets can also be cut into cubes and skewered for cooking either over a grill or in the oven.

What Is Shark Finning?

While it is legal in the United States to consume shark meat, that is not the case for shark fins.

Shark fins are popular in some Asian cultures, especially in Chinese cuisine, where they are typically prepared as the main ingredient in shark fin soup. The fins themselves are mainly made of cartilage, which means that after removing the skin and any accompanying meat, the fin cartilage is thinly sliced and then slowly simmered to soften it, while also adding body to the cooking liquid.

The issue is how the fins are removed from the sharks. Because the fins are the most valuable part of the shark, and because, unlike the sharks themselves, the fins don't need to occupy freezer space, which is limited on fishing vessels, the usual practice is to catch a shark, cut the fins off its body while it's still alive, and then dump the finless animal back into the water. 

And because it can't swim without its fins, the finless sharks either bleed to death, are eaten by other fish, or drown—because a shark has to be able to move through the water for its gills to absorb oxygen.

Besides being cruel and inhumane, the practice of shark finning is responsible for as many as 100 million shark deaths per year, which has threatened a number of shark species with endangerment.