By Emily Sohn, Discovery Channel
Even if you read educational materials at zoos and donate money to conservation organizations, your eating habits may be unintentionally undermining the threatened species you care about—and even if you’re vegetarian or vegan, you may be surprised to learn which at-risk species aren’t banned from menus.
A recent study of shark fin soup from restaurants in 14 states revealed a variety of endangered, vulnerable and near-threatened shark species swimming in the broth. The finding raised questions about how many other at-risk creatures are readily available on restaurant menus.
It may be easier to order a troubled entrée than you think, experts say, especially if you eat fish and seafood.
“Seafood, fish and invertebrates are the last wild food that we eat as animal protein” and can buy in stores or restaurants, said biologist Susan Lieberman, director of international policy for the Pew Environment Group in Washington, D.C. “It doesn’t mean it’s safe for a species just because it’s on a menu.”
There are a variety of laws that regulate the trade of animals across state and national lines, Lieberman said. If a species is listed under the United States Endangered Species Act or the Marine Mammal Protection Act, for example, it cannot be imported into the country for any reason, including for use as food. Even if a species is not listed federally, some states may regulate its sale.
Likewise, if a species is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which categorizes it as threatened with extinction, it is illegal to import that species for commercial use.
If the species is on Appendix II of CITES and is considered at risk of becoming threatened with extinction, on the other hand, import is allowed, though the process requires permits and other regulatory hoops.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature also maintains a Red List that ranks species based on how much trouble they’re in, but it’s still legal to import and sell species given an IUCN listing of threatened or endangered if they are not listed by CITES or the U.S. government.
Meanwhile, only an estimated 10 percent of 30,000 known fish species have even been evaluated by the IUCN, said Sheila Bowman, senior outreach manager of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. Sometimes, species of concern that are proposed for listing get refused protection by the U.S. government.
That leaves it up to diners to be informed enough to make their own decisions.
“We’re not telling people they shouldn’t eat stuff, but they should be aware when they go to markets or restaurants, they should know what they’re eating and where it came from, and they should ask questions,” Lieberman said. “Every bowl of soup adds up.”
Read on to find out which five startling, but legal, menu items to watch out for.