The campaign against shark-fin soup is building in Hong Kong and perhaps this is a good moment to summarize some of the actions and challenges around educating consumers about this unsustainable dish.
Recently, Legislative Council member, Hon. Audrey Eu, requested the moribund Hong Kong government to clarify its position on serving shark-fin soup at official banquets and to release information about how often the dish was included at state functions.
She also asked the government whether or not it was educating the public about the ecological damage caused by excessive consumption of high-value shark fins, which are often hacked off the still-alive marine animals. The shark body is then discarded in a practice widely condemned for its wastage and banned in U.S. and other waters.
The predictable response from Secretary for the Environment, Edward Yau at a Legco meeting on January 12 was that because of budgetary constraints not much shark-fin soup was served at official functions but that detailed information on this was impossible to gather. “We do not think it is appropriate to lay down guidelines to regulate the kind of food to be consumed in official banquets and meals,” Yau said.
Further, Yau hid behind the traditional government line, which is that HK follows CITES, which allows the trade in all 468 shark species (Yau says there are 320), except the three listed in the CITES appendices, Great White, Basking and Whale Sharks. “At present the laws of Hong Kong regulate the trade in shark species in accordance with the CITES requirements,” he said.
CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
The Hong Kong government showed once again that officials are more concerned with keeping an industry or trade body happy, in this case the Marine Products Association, than in any action against ecological damage or move toward encouraging sustainable fisheries.
Echoing this sentiment, in a recent letter to the SCMP, Robert Jenkins, identified as president of Species Management Specialists and apparently also a consultant to the Hong Kong Marine Products Association, wrote “There are no valid reasons for Hong Kong’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation to condemn traditional Chinese cuisine simply to satisfy the views of persons and organisations ideologically opposed to human use of marine species for food.”
As justification for this he points again to CITES, which has 180 sovereign states as members and “for 25 years has been the premier international legal instrument identifying wild animals and plant species endangered by trade.” Even for the three listed shark species, Jenkins points out, CITES requires trade to be regulated, not stopped.
The reality is, however, that CITES is primarily a trade rather than a conservation body and as such is inherently political, motivated by issues beyond protection of species. CITES last year at its Doha meeting failed to include a severely threatened shark species, the Scalloped Hammerhead, among its appendices because member states with specific interests were unable to reach agreement. Even critically endangered Blue Fin Tuna is not listed by CITES.
Yet the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, has classified 143 shark species as either critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, or near threatened with the risk of extinction. That amounts to 30 percent of all shark species and many of the shark fins that we find in Hong Kong markets actually belong to these.
Still, action against the consumption of shark-fin soup is growing in Asia. Illustrating the reputational risk to companies ignoring the issue, shark conservation organizations were again successful in pressuring a Hong Kong bank to withdraw a shark fin soup promotion. Last summer, following similar pressure, Citibank Hong Kong withdrew a shark-fin soup promotion and asked its employees to avoid the delicacy during work events.
Working together, several marine conservation groups recently launched a campaign against Dah Sing Bank for announcing it would offer a shark-fin soup banquet for 12 to new borrowers.
After a few days of intense adverse publicity, the bank withdrew the offer. Hopefully, other financial institutions locally will also recognize the reputational risk around promoting or even serving shark fin soup at banquets.
Just to recap the importance, shark populations worldwide are facing massive decline. Scientists estimate that the fins of tens millions of sharks are traded globally. This is devastating to sharks, which are slow-growing, long-lived, late to reach sexual maturity and produce few young.
In other words, the human appetite for shark fin and other shark products simply cannot be sustained. The consumption of shark-fin soup is a major factor in declining shark populations, with potentially disastrous impacts on the entire marine ecosystem.
Although shark fins are widely regarded as tasteless, shark fin soup is considered a delicacy mainly because of the high price of the fins. People eat or serve it mostly as a measure of status and a bowl can cost as much as US$400 a bowl.
Shark fins fetch a high price , while shark meat does not. Fins sold in Hong Kong range from about 90 euros to 300 euros per kilogram while shark meat in European markets fetch 1 euro to 7 euros per kilo, according to a Jan 22 letter to the editor in the South China Morning Post written by Claire Garner, director of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation (www.hksharkfoundation.org).
That means the wasteful practice of shark finning – the cutting off a live shark’s fins and then throwing the body back to the sea – is highly lucrative.
WWF and other conservation organizations in Hong Kong such as Bloom Association, the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, Green Sense, Greenpeace, Shark Savers and others are working in their own way to draw attention to the need to protect sharks.
WWF has managed to persuade many corporations in Hong Kong such as HSBC, the Hong Kong and China Gas Company, Hang Seng Bank, Swire Properties, University of Hong Kong, Canon Hong Kong to adopt a no-shark-fin dining policy ( http://bit.ly/dtkHA1 ). Hong Kong Observatory, and 180 primary and secondary schools also have made a similar pledge.
So what can the average person do to promote awareness around the damage shark finning causes our marine ecology? Beyond not consuming shark fin soup yourself, please do ask your companies and trading partners about their own policies.
It is urgent we act against waste and move consumption toward sustainable fisheries before it’s too late!