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Going Green: Year of the shark

Demand for prestigious soup ingredient in China spurs protest campaigns, trade barriers

By James Wright
October 01, 2012

Shark fin soup, in high demand at Asian restaurants worldwide, is yet another example of an animal-based product considered critical to cultural identity and prestige — and worth a lot of money — pitted against emotive environmental conservation efforts. 

According to several environmental organizations, shark populations around the world have been decimated, in some cases up to 99 percent of their historical peaks, to supply a dish that is more status symbol than staple. The groups blame a seemingly insatiable demand for shark fins, which in many cases are lopped off the animals at sea while the rest of the body — about 95 percent of its total weight — is tossed overboard, a process known as finning. Each year, an estimated 73 million of the fish, known as an apex predator for its crucial role in the ocean ecosystem, are rendered helpless and left to die. 

The soup, which has been part of special celebrations in China dating back several hundred years to the Ming Dynasty yet can be rather bland in flavor, isn’t the only lure. Dried shark fins are also highly valued in Eastern medicine for many purposes, like increasing sexual potency and energy and lowering cholesterol. 

As awareness of dwindling shark numbers grows, so do efforts to discourage the flow of product. 2012 could turn out to be the year of the shark: This summer, Illinois became the first inland state to ban the trade of shark fins, joining California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. Key port states like New York, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Florida and New Jersey also have introduced similar legislation or will reintroduce bills in upcoming legislative sessions. 

Beth Lowell, campaign director for Oceana, wonders if the bulk of the trade shifts to the East Coast, as traders go port shopping once California’s shark fin ban goes into effect next year.

“You want shark fishermen to continue fishing. But you also want to keep the huge fins from whale sharks from driving that demand,” she says. “Is there a way to address the trade while continuing to have sustainable fishing for sharks? How do you thread that needle?” 

U.S. law has attempted to do just that. Since 2000, finning and possessing or landing shark fins without the carcasses (or if the weight of the fins exceeds 5 percent of the total weight of carcasses found on board) has been banned in U.S. waters. That 5 percent rule was difficult to enforce, so in 2010, the law was amended to require that all sharks be landed with fins attached, which prevents high-grading and assists in proper species identification. 

International measures are being implemented. The International Seafood Sustainability Foundation in February required all of its tuna-fishing industry participants to adopt written policies prohibiting the practice of finning and to refrain from transactions with fishing vessels that engage in the practice. 

And last month, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) tightened international trade regulations for porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus) and scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini). Both species are now listed in Appendix III, giving them special protection among CITES parties. 

Porbeagle shark and scalloped hammerhead shark now must have a CITES certificate of origin issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for any shipments entering or leaving the United States. Shipments must be declared and receive clearance prior to release by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Legal shark harvests exist worldwide, yet few companies involved in the trade are willing to speak on the record for fear of being mentioned in the same breath as finning. One executive, whose company harvests thresher sharks in inshore waters in South America, says finning is an “ugly scene” and asked to not be identified. 

The market for shark fins is not limited to Asia: Canada, Indonesia and the United States were all active importers in 2008, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). But there’s now a stigma attached to the product. The Animal Welfare Institute, for instance, keeps tabs on U.S. restaurants that serve shark fin soup. In August, the Washington, D.C.-based website listed several hundred that either had the dish on the menu or served it upon request. 

A recent study, paid for by the Pew Environment Group and conducted at Stony Brook University’s Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, used DNA samples to show that eight endangered, vulnerable or near-threatened shark species were served in shark fin soup at U.S. restaurants. For up to $100 a bowl, restaurants served highly prized species like blues, makos, bulls and the top prize: critically endangered scalloped hammerheads. 

When Oceana started working with states on shark fin trade-ban bills, Lowell says there wasn’t a lot of backlash from the Asian community. 

“Some of the restaurants in New York would have been happy to have a ban go through because they then wouldn’t have to carry such an expensive item,” she says. “But there’s a feeling that you need to have it to show you are prosperous and can afford it.”  

That sentiment is especially strong in China, with Hong Kong acting as a global trading hub. According to FAO, China (including Hong Kong, Macao and Taipei) imported 12,869 metric tons of shark fins in 2008, 94 percent of the worldwide total. Those figures are consistent with prior years as well. 

Dawn Martin, president of SeaWeb (see NetWorking) says awareness is changing rapidly, which can have an impact on cultural habits. 

“Culture is a hard thing to ever pass judgment on or to fully understand, especially when it’s not yours,” she says. 

The conservationists’ cause has attracted celebrity power in the form of 7-foot-6 Chinese basketball star Yao Ming, who played for the NBA’s Houston Rockets and is now an ambassador for San Francisco-based organization Wild Aid. Last year, Yao filmed public-service announcements urging his fellow countrymen to follow his example: He committed to stop eating shark fin soup in 2006 after learning about finning. At its Seafood Summit in Hong Kong, SeaWeb named Yao one of its Seafood Champions.

“I urge China to lead by banning shark fin soup, and I urge business leaders to end the consumption of shark fin soup at business events,” says Yao in one of his clips. 

But like sashimi tuna and Caspian Sea sturgeon caviar, rarity and high prices can add to the allure. According to FAO, shark fin prices spiked in the 1980s and 1990s, reflecting substantial growth in demand, the opening of the Chinese market, the reduction of tariffs and the relaxing of political pressure, which had “discouraged the consumption of this product in the past when it was considered too luxurious for domestic consumption.” 

Canned shark fin soup is now available in supermarkets through-out China. 

Email Senior Editor James Wright at jwright@divcom.com


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