If there’s one thing that’s historically true about humans, it’s that we have little regard for anything outside ourselves—animals, the environment, even each other much of the time. So the fact that we’re currently hurtling toward widespread ecological disaster is no surprise. But while we slowly kill the planet, we are more quickly killing some of our most beloved animal species in the interest of filling our plates.
These animals don’t just provide humans with dishes they love. They are also important facets of their respective environments, and in some cases, if they go extinct, ecological chaos may ensue. In the meantime, your children and your children’s children will never get to experience these foods. Will we stop eating them in time to save these species, or are they doomed to extinction?
Sturgeons, which consist of 27 different species of fish, are among the most endangered species on the planet. There are a few reasons why these fish are facing extinction, but perhaps the most notable is humans’ desire for caviar. You may know that caviar is fish eggs, but to qualify as “real” caviar, the eggs must come from sturgeon specifically. These days, some caviar comes from farmed fish, but what is regarded as the highest-quality caviar comes from wild sturgeon in the Caspian and Black seas. Although wild caviar was banned in the mid-2000s, a booming black market for the luxury good has continued to deplete sturgeon stocks.
Some restauranteurs have turned to alternative caviar, like salmon roe. Famously, New York’s Eleven Madison Park, when it was rebranded as a vegan restaurant, employed tonburi, also known as “land caviar,” on its menu. True caviar aficionados are not likely to take easily to these alternative “caviars,” but for those of us with limited caviar experience, making the switch can be an ethical—and economical—alternative.
The ortolan bunting, a songbird related to the finch, is often prepared as a delicacy in France and is eaten whole, bones and all. Traditionally, it’s eaten with a napkin or a cloth covering the diner’s head, which is said to help preserve the bird’s aroma as its chewed and swallowed, a finicky process that often takes several minutes to complete. When these birds are alive, they are often blinded, which encourages them to gorge themselves, making themselves fatter and, therefore, more decadent. They are then drowned in brandy, which simultaneously functions as a marinade.
Unfortunately, with the gusto with which French fine diners have consumed the ortolan, the bird is now facing extinction. Smithsonian Mag claims that around 10% of ortolans passing through southern France are illegally hunted and killed every migration season, despite the fact that poaching the bird has been outlawed in France.
Shark is perhaps best known as a delicacy in Iceland, where it’s fermented into a creation called hákarl, which many consider an acquired taste (hákarl is famous for its strong aroma of ammonia). However, Iceland isn’t the only country to consume shark; in fact, it’s technically legal in the United States, even though you may not come across shark on menus on a regular basis. But some shark species are now facing extinction due to overfishing and bycatch. Additionally, some sharks are vulnerable to shark finning, which involves removing the fins (the most profitable part of the fish) and throwing the rest of the shark back into the ocean.
The Guardian reported that endangered shark DNA has even been found in pet food, meaning that animal owners were unknowingly feeding their pets an endangered species.
If you don’t live in a region where pangolins are consumed, there’s a good chance that the first time you heard of the pangolin was at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis when scientists were attempting to determine where the virus had originated. Pangolins were considered potentially responsible for spreading the virus to humans. This animal closely resembles the anteater but boasts rough, scaly skin. The animal’s scales are utilized in traditional Chinese medicine for many uses, including to reduce swelling. In the last several decades, the demand for pangolin has soared so high that it now faces extinction in the face of poaching. The black market for these animals has only grown with the introduction of the internet.
Some of these foods don’t grace many of our plates often, but there is one that’s a bit more common, especially if you frequent your local sushi spot. Bluefin tuna, which is often used for sashimi, has seen an 80 to 90% population reduction in the past 80 years, according to Tulane University. There are a total of 63 species of tuna, 15 of which are considered endangered. This is mainly due to overfishing and illegal fishing in much of the ocean where these fish are found. Demand for sushi has driven up the cost for bluefin tuna, encouraging overfishing. As tuna remains extremely popular for the mainstream eater, only time will tell whether we’ll eat the tuna out of existence.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.