Tide turns against shark fin soup in China

Specialist restaurants in Beijing are changing their menus or closing down as the cultural tide turns against a gruesome practice and campaigners report a generational divide, with young people starting to reject their parents’ symbols of success

By John Vidal  /  The Observer

Fri, Jan 17, 2014 - Page 9

The gruesome practice of shark finning — sawing the fins off live sharks in order to make a gourmet soup — appears to be declining following growing Western revulsion and a Chinese government crackdown on corruption and extravagant consumption.

Six months after China banned the soup from all official banquets, the price of fins has fallen by 20 percent to 30 percent in Hong Kong, Macau and other major fishing markets. Some specialist restaurants in Beijing have changed their menus or closed down, and airlines and hotel chains have stopped serving the soup. Meanwhile, in Europe, California and elsewhere, loopholes that allowed shark finning to continue have been closed.

About 75 million to 100 million sharks are thought to be killed each year for their fins, which are prized in Chinese culture for making the gelatinous yellow soup. The sharks are caught, their fins are sliced off and they are often thrown back into the ocean, where they die slowly.

The mass slaughter has led to some shark populations declining by up to 98 percent in the past 15 years, and nearly one-third of all ocean-going sharks are now on the internationally recognized red list of threatened species.

The statistics are unreliable, but the latest Chinese Ministry of Commerce figures suggest a 70 percent fall in the consumption of shark fins in China in 2012 to last year, and a 30 percent drop in exports to China from Hong Kong last year. In addition, market prices for fins in Macau and other eastern ports that supply China with fish are 20 percent to 30 percent down on last year, according to the US conservation group WildAid.

“The tide may at last be turning,” WildAid director Peter Knight said. “We are getting lots of signals that attitudes are changing and prices are dropping because people no longer want to eat shark fin soup.”

“At the same time there have been increased attempts by the Chinese government to combat the worst excesses of the exploding economic and industrial development,” he said.

The global slaughter of sharks grew hugely in the 1990s as China’s new middle classes developed a taste for what used to be a luxury soup served only to elites or at weddings and special occasions. At the peak of the mass slaughter, a bowl of shark fin soup cost up to US$300 and a pair of shark fins could be sold for more than US$700 per kilogram — enough to encourage fishermen as far afield as Europe and Latin America to target the species. Nearly all shark fins end up in China, Hong Kong or Taiwan.

“Biologically, sharks simply can’t keep up with the current rate of exploitation and demand. Protective measures must be scaled up significantly in order to avoid further depletion and the possible extinction of many shark species,” said Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

He estimated last year that up to 100 million sharks were being killed a year. Sharks, which can live for 70 years, play a crucial ecological role in the world’s oceans. As “apex predators,” they are at the top of the food pyramid. Without sharks to hunt second-level predators, it is thought that the whole ecosystem would become imbalanced, leading to the decline of fish stocks and even of coral reefs.

Revulsion at the practice of finning has been steadily growing since China’s best-known sports star, the basketball player Yao Ming (姚明), said on film in 2009 that he would no longer eat the soup. Yao used the slogan “Mei yu mai mai, jiu mei yu sha hai” (沒有買賣,就沒有殺害), meaning: “When the buying stops, the killing can too.”

Campaigners report a generational divide emerging in China, with young people rejecting their parents’ symbols of success and status.

A recent social media campaign in China attracted more than 350,000 pledges not to eat shark fin soup, mainly from young people.

Yao’s campaign is said to have helped to reduce consumption of shark fin soup and contributed to the Chinese government’s decision to formally ban the soup from all state banquets, along with birds’ nests, other wild animal products, expensive cigarettes and alcohol.

The new rules are intended “to promote frugality, oppose extravagance and enhance the anti-corruption efforts among party and governmental authorities,” Xinhua news agency said.

Global efforts to reduce rampant shark killing have included setting up marine parks and sanctuaries. Mexico, Honduras, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands and other Pacific countries are in the process of establishing, or have already set up, large protected areas, and Britain has created the world’s largest marine reserve around the Chagos Archipelago.

Last year the EU brought in a regulation ending the practice of shark finning; in the future, all EU boats will have to land sharks with their fins still attached. California last year banned the sale, possession, trade or distribution of shark fins. And New Zealand last week brought forward to October a complete ban on shark finning in its waters.

However, the Chinese official disapproval is expected to have the greatest effect on prices and consumption.

Last week, environmental groups said that they hoped that it marked a change in broader environmental attitudes.

“The regulation stems from a crackdown on corruption and lavish spending, but language in the notice acknowledges the importance of promoting green, eco-friendly and low-carbon consumption habits,” said Joshua Reinhart, a vice-president of the Pew charitable trusts.

“China has the potential to play a key role in helping to solve the problems of climate change, overfishing, pollution and conservation. The new shark-fin diplomacy may be a pivotal event,” he said.