'Focus on demand for shark meat instead'

Sharks and their dried fins are still being sold in Singapore, although many people and hotels are saying no to eating or serving shark's fin soup. PHOTO: COURTESY OF BOON PEI YA

SINGAPORE - The consumption of shark's fin is controversial, but with Chinese New Year fast approaching - on Feb 16 and 17 - the ingredient will be on the shopping list of many families, and spark many debates.

Lianhe Zaobao reporter Lee Lay Ming travelled to Spain, one of the world's largest shark meat producing countries, and Taiwan, a big player in the entire shark's fin supply chain, to understand the trade and customs of people who catch, trade and consume shark.

The article first appeared in Lianhe Zaobao on Sunday (Jan 21) and is translated here by Lim Ruey Yan.

This is an excerpt of Ms Lee's story:

The demand for shark's fin in Singapore is estimated to have dropped by more than 50 per cent over the past decade, said Mr Melvin Foo, chairman of Marine and Land Products Association (MLPA).

MLPA represents 14 traders in marine products.

Mr Foo, 62, got this figure based on feedback from restaurant owners and company shipments.

Mr Lee Chiang Howe, 55, the owner of Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee, noted that people are now eating less shark's fin, and different age groups have different attitudes about it.

"Youngsters nowadays think eating shark's fin is a kind of sin, so during festivals like Chinese New Year, grandparents who want to eat shark's fin are stopped by their grandchildren," he said.

Out of more than 400 types of sharks, only seven types of sawfish are listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) Appendix I, which means they are threatened with extinction. Trade is allowed only in exceptional circumstances.

Another 12 types of sharks are listed in Appendix II, and these sharks are not facing extinction. International trade can proceed on the condition that the survival of the shark species is not threatened.

Mr Foo said most of the shark's fin sold and bought by local traders comes from shark species not listed on Cites.

According to MLPA's estimates, 60 per cent of shark's fin in the local market is from blue sharks, 20 per cent from rig sharks, 15 per cent from school sharks and the remaining 5 per cent from silky sharks and other types of sharks.

Only silky sharks are listed in Cites' Appendix II.

MLPA said its traders abide strictly by Cites regulations and members must sell shark's fin from only sustainable sources.

Dr Robert Hueter, a senior scientist and director of the Centre for Shark Research at United States not-for-profit organisation Mote Marine Laboratory, said in an e-mail interview that more emphasis should be placed on the demand for shark meat, and the mortality of sharks.

"This is more important than just focusing on the fins," he said.

  • Singapore can play key role, say nature groups

  • In May 2017, global wildlife trade-monitoring network Traffic and nature group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) released a report, quoting figures from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations between 2005 and 2013.

    WWF numbers show that Singapore ranked second in the world for the import and export of shark's fin.

    Between 2012 and 2013, the total value of shark's fin imports in Singapore reached US$51.4 million ($67 million), with exports of shark's fin reaching US$40 million.

    Traffic and WWF feel that Singapore has an important role to play in tackling the crisis, and that the authorities should adopt stricter regulations. The report set off a new round of discussions on shark's fin in Singapore.

Dr Giam Choo Hoo, a consultant on international wildlife conservation and former representative for Asia at Cites, made a similar point in a letter to The Straits Times last year.

He said that Western countries and some developing countries harvest sharks for their meat, and shark conservation should focus on shark meat instead of shark's fin.

But the US Congress is currently considering a ban on the trade of shark's fin in the country.

Dr Hueter and Dr David Shiffman, a research fellow with Canada's Simon Fraser University, said banning the sale of shark's fin would not make it illegal to continue to catch and kill sharks.

It would only regulate how the parts of dead sharks can be used. They said forcing fishermen to discard fins from sharks caught in sustainably managed fisheries would contribute to wastefulness.

It may even cause fishermen to simply catch more sharks to obtain the same income they earned before the ban.

Ms Kathy Xu, 35, the founder of The Dorsal Effect, doubts people really want to eat shark meat.

Her Singapore-based eco-tourism company aims to provide shark fishermen in Indonesia's Lombok with new income sources.

She believes people feel that since the sharks have been caught and the meat is cheap, they may just as well find a use for it.

Ms Xu, who is also a volunteer at Shark Savers Singapore, said: "I feel that once you get the fin, you have to find a way to make sure that something is said for the demand of the meat so it doesn't make the fin look so bad to be wanted and be so expensive... Demand needs to stop first."

But traders and catchers are calling for sustainable trade in shark's fin to continue.

Mr Foo said: "Sustainability is very important, as it will provide the supply of raw materials which will drive the industry."

Mr Joaquin Cadilla of Spain's Organisation of Longliners from A Guarda said sustainability includes environmental, social and economic aspects, all built on a sense of responsibility.

"Fishermen nowadays have a 'new conscience'... fishing is no longer the right of a fisherman, but a right given to fishermen by society to make use of natural resources to feed a community, and this will make you fish in a responsible way," he added.

Mr Foo said: "We want to work with the conservationists, but they have their own stance and are determined to end the shark's fin business."

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