Even as China says no to shark fin soup, dish gaining popularity elsewhere in Asia

Shark fin activists protesting outside a Maxim's restaurant in Hong Kong over the group's continued sale of shark fin, on Feb 10, 2018.
Shark fin activists protesting outside a Maxim's restaurant in Hong Kong over the group's continued sale of shark fin, on Feb 10, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (WASHINGTON POST) - The battle to save the world's sharks from extinction has not yet been won, despite one of the most significant wildlife success stories of recent years.

Consumption of shark fin soup in China has fallen by around 80 per cent since 2011, government figures and private surveys show, after a celebrity-driven public awareness campaign and a government crackdown on extravagant banquets.

But the good news is offset by an alarming rise in the consumption of this prestige dish in places like Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Macao, according to a new report by WildAid, a San Francisco-based group that campaigns to curb demand for wildlife products.

"While consumers in mainland China have changed their behaviour in response to awareness campaigns and a government banquet ban, shark fin soup remains on the menu in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and consumption is growing in places like Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Macau," said WildAid CEO Peter Knights.

Not only does shark fin have no nutritional benefit - it is often just tasteless strands of cartilage in a chicken stock broth - it can actually be harmful.

The shark's position at the top of the food chain means it can contain dangerous amounts of mercury, cadmium, arsenic and other poisonous metals, the report said.

It began as an ancient Chinese imperial dish, but was popularised after the country's economy took off and a new wealthy class emerged with a penchant for ostentatious displays of social status.

Costly shark fin soup became a popular dish at weddings and banquets, and the oceans were ruthlessly exploited to satisfy this new fad.

Today, around 100 million sharks are killed every year, with parts of 73 million ending up in soup, WildAid estimates. A quarter of shark and ray species are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, including iconic species like the Great Hammerhead.

The wholesale slaughter of sharks is also detrimental to the marine ecosystem itself - already under pressure from industrial-scale overfishing - as removing the apex predator throws everything out of balance.

Many sharks are simply tossed back to the ocean after their fins are removed.

A public awareness campaign led by former NBA player Yao Ming helped educate Chinese people about the cruelty of the shark fin trade - a decade ago surveys showed most were unaware that what is known here as "fish wing soup" involved the death of sharks.

President Xi Jinping's signature campaign against corruption did the rest, taking the dish off the menu at official banquets.

As a result, consumption, imports and prices of shark fin in China have all plummeted.

But the effort to build on that success faces fresh challenges.

WildAid reported that while only 5 per cent of Hong Kong wedding guests said they liked shark fin soup, 98 per cent of restaurants there continue to serve it, including the popular Hong Kong Maxim's chain.

And while WildAid has helped persuade 44 international airlines and shipping companies to prohibit the transport of shark fins, FedEx continues to hold out, the report said.

In a statement, FedEx said it was opposed to the trafficking of animal parts obtained from protected species, and was committed to investigating any violations.

Macao's booming casino and tourism industry serves shark fin dishes in large quantities, and now a new market for shark fin soup is emerging among Chinese-Indonesians, and the dish is also now on the menu at business functions in Vietnam.

Thailand has also emerged as a significant new market. WildAid said 57 per cent of people polled in urban Thailand had tried the soup, mostly at weddings, family dinners or business meetings, while more than 100 restaurants in Bangkok serve it.

In a 2017 survey, WildAid found that many Thais wanted to try shark fin soup because they had heard it was tasty, while awareness of the cruelty and extent of the shark fin trade was low, a possible indication that demand could rise further.

Sharks are also threatened by demand for their meat from Brazil, Uruguay, Britain, Italy and Spain, where consumers are often unaware they are consuming it in seafood dishes.

Shark liver oil, known as squalene, is used in cosmetics and health supplements such as omega-3 pills, accounting for 3 million shark deaths a year.

Millions more sharks die each year as bycatch in the tuna industry, WildAid said, adding that greater protection is needed for blue sharks, with up to 20 million killed deliberately or unintentionally each year.

Maxim's did not respond to requests for comment.