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

Sun, Sep 03, 2006 - Page 9

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.

"Our Chinese clients ask for shark fin now, whereas our local clients -- and especially the younger ones -- ask for it less and less," said Peter Lai (黎永良), financial house sales director with UBS Vickers in Hong Kong.

"Clients expect to be treated like VIPs and for Mainlanders that means shark fin soup. If they don't get it, you could lose the deal," Lai added.

The threat of 1.3 billion potential shark fin consumers is not lost on environmentalists.

"The problem is that it is being very successfully marketed in China," complained David Newberry, among the more vocal Hong Kong-based activists.

"As far as we understand, it isn't a traditional dish and -- let's face it -- it has no taste. It's just that people have been led to believe that if they don't offer it, they will lose face," Newberry said.

Activists are particularly repulsed by the method of fin harvesting, a process called "finning" in which the limb is hacked from the fish, which is then tossed back into the sea to die a painful death.

They point to studies, such as one recently by Science magazine, that suggested shark populations had halved since the 1980s, with numbers of some species, like the hammerhead shark, down almost 90 percent.

Activists scored a major victory last year when they pressured the newly opened Hong Kong Disneyland to drop the dish from its menu.

That was followed by a vow from the Hong Kong University never to serve shark fin at college functions.

Yao's conversion was another coup, but one born of a realization that the fight to ban shark fin was entering a new and more difficult phase.

"China is going to be unstoppable," Muller said. "It is newly arrived to wealth and its 1.3 billion people are going to want to share the bounty that others have had in the past."