Sun, Sep 03, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Yao Ming unlikely to curb China's shark fin appetite

No one wants to hear that this traditional Chinese delicacy, a must serve item at any wealthy host's dinner party, is dangerously depleting shark stocks

AFP , HONG KONG

It was supposed to be a media coup: basketball superstar Yao Ming (姚明) took a public stage to condemn the consumption of shark fin soup and vowed never to eat the Chinese delicacy again.

But the media silence that has since greeted his pronouncement has only fueled concerns that growing wealth in China is likely to boost the popularity of the dish -- and further diminish dwindling shark populations.

The popularity of shark fin soup is blamed by environmentalists for drastically reducing shark numbers worldwide, and is thought directly responsible for putting four species on the endangered list.

Towering superstar Yao's comments earlier this month won the praise of activists who are urging governments worldwide to ban fishing for shark fins.

Yao, together with Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast and sportswear tycoon Li Ning (李寧), and Chinese pop singer Liu Huan (劉歡), all joined the campaign organized by environmental group WildAid.

However, the media snub in China -- and in Hong Kong, where some 80 percent of all shark fin is consumed -- suggested the campaign will face some tough resistance in the world's most populous country.

In a nation where outside interference is strictly resisted by the communist government, this was a step too far -- one of China's "national treasures" had rounded on his own culture.

"I guess editors must have felt it was embarrassing to China and to Yao for him to have made those comments about such an integral part of Chinese culture," said David Plott, head of media studies at Hong Kong University.

"There had to be a reason for not covering the story -- any newsman worth his desk would have leapt at it. It was a great story," he said.

Worse than being ignored, Yao's comments drew him a reproach from seafood industry associations for making "rash remarks" that, to quote one organization, affected "the livelihood of the global fishery, seafood and catering industries."

It said that as "the pride of China" Yao had a special responsibility to carefully choose his words in public and not make groundless statements.

Yet Yao's comments were grounded in a very real threat posed to already falling shark numbers from the growing appetite for the soup among China's 1.3 billion people.

Until recently, shark fin sales had been dominated by the wealthy of Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.

But China's economic boom has brought more people into the income bracket that affords them the luxury dish -- and they are buying it with gusto.

"Mainlanders are now our growth market," said Andreas Muller, chairman of the Hong Kong Chef's Association and chef at the Swire conglomerate's Butterfield's private members' club.

Association figures show local demand in the southern territory has plummeted by as much as a fifth in the past year while there has been a corresponding 30 percent rise in mainland visitors buying the soup.

"They have the wealth and shark fin is the traditional Chinese way of showing off wealth," Muller added.

Considered among the emperors' delicacies, shark fin -- a gloopy, almost tasteless gelatinous concoction given flavor by the addition of chicken stock -- has long been the highlight of business lunches and wedding banquets in Hong Kong.

Prized for its scarcity and high value -- the best fins cost US$1 a gram dry, and upwards of US$100 per bowl in a soup -- it is regarded as a status symbol that confers prestige on the meal's host.

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