Campaigns featuring some of China’s biggest celebrities, including basketball star Yao Ming and actor Jackie Chan, have persuaded some Chinese to think twice about eating shark fin soup. But changing attitudes about the centuries-old delicacy, a large contributor to decimated shark populations, continues to be a challenge.
For many Chinese, the soup, which dates back the Ming Dynasty, is considered a matter of wealth and prestige, often featured at weddings and banquets. Some also believe shark fin has medicinal value, despite a lack of scientific evidence.
As China’s economy has soared, so has demand for the soup. As a result, many of the world’s shark populations have plummeted by as much as 90 percent in recent decades. As many as 100 million sharks are killed each year, about 73 million of these for their fins, according to some estimates. Because shark meat holds little value, fishermen often slice off fins and toss the sharks back to sea to die.
About 50 to 80 percent of all shark fins, or about 10,000 tonnes, goes through Hong Kong’s ports, with the majority of the product destined for the Chinese mainland, and to a lesser extent Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia and Thailand. The supply of fins from various shark species comes from different parts of the world, including Central and South America, Europe, the United States, Indonesia and Taiwan.
In recent years, high-profile campaigns in China have emerged to do battle against the consumption of shark fin soup. Groups campaigning for a stop to eating shark fin soup assert that the soup is a wasteful delicacy, and can in fact be harmful to humans, because some research has shown that high levels of arsenic, methylmercury and other harmful substances have been found in shark fins.
In 2004, WildAid, a group that fights the trade in illegal wildlife, opened a Beijing office and began working via advertising and public relations campaigns to advocate the protection of sharks. WildAid’s most prominent anti- shark fin campaign features basketball star Yao Ming, who was born in Shanghai and plays for the U.S. National Basketball Association.
The advertisements are featured on China Central Television (CCTV), a state-owned broadcaster, and on billboards and public screens in China’s major cities.
"When the buying stops, the killing can too," Yao says in the advertisements.
The WildAid campaign has had notable success. According to a survey commissioned by WildAid in the run up to the 2008 Olympics, 55 percent of those interviewed had seen the campaign. Of those, 94 percent said it had an impact; 83 percent had stopped or reduced consumption of shark fin; and 89 percent said it should be banned.
"Those kinds of figures are indicative that we are having an impact. But there’s a long way to go," Steve Trent, president of WildAid, told IPS. "I can’t tell you that we are saving sharks in the wild, but I can tell you that China is increasingly aware and understanding of the problems, and they’re willing to act."
As a sign of growing momentum, Alibaba, China’s version of eBay, recently banned the sale of shark fins on their site. In May, a dozen Hong Kong restaurants and hotels pledged to offer shark-free options for banquets.
In one success story, a restaurant in southern Guangzhou city spent 3,000 U.S. dollars on a live 200-kilogramme nurse shark and then advertised it in a local newspaper to attract customers. Green Eyes China, a Wenzhou-based environmental group that works to expose animal rights abuses and environmental damage, sent employees to pose as customers and found that more than 70 people are already made reservations to try the shark.
Green Eyes petitioned the restaurant to let the shark go, while volunteers protested outside the restaurant with placards. The protests drew media attention and eventually, the restaurant released the shark to Guangdong’s fishery authorities, who found a home for it in the province’s Ocean Park.
Despite growing public awareness, changing deeply ingrained attitudes remains difficult. According to a study conducted by WildAid China and the China Wildlife Conservation Association, over one-third of the participants surveyed in 16 Chinese cities had consumed shark fin in the past year, while 75 percent said they were unaware that shark fin soup was actually made of shark fins.
The trade in shark fins is also a big-money industry. When Yao Ming said in 2006, "I pledge to stop eating shark fin soup and will not do so under all circumstances," companies from China, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore signed a joint letter of protest, complaining that the campaign would negatively impact their business.
According to a CCTV programme aired in a January, a single plant in Puqi, a town in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, can process 6,000 to 7,000 tonnes of shark fins annually, worth about 6 7.3 million dollars. That is about 10,000 dead sharks per plant, and Puqi alone has dozens of processing plants.
Fang Minghe, Green Eyes China’s leader, said that the public awareness campaigns will be ineffective without a nationwide law to protect sharks. "We need to conduct ethics education, tell people that sharks face extinction and please don’t eat them," Fang told IPS. "But, you know, ethics education means nothing if there is no law. If there’s a law, things will be different."