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Time to save the sharks?

In China, campaigns to protect the fish and stop the practice of finning face an uphill struggle. Views are old and fixed, and there is a lot of money to be made, writes Huo Weiya.

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A three-metre, 200-kilogramme nurse shark lay half dead in a tank in a Guangzhou restaurant. The restaurant owners spent 20,000 yuan (US$3,000) to buy it from a seafood market, then advertised in a local newspaper in a bid to attract customers.

When the Chinese animal protection NGO Green Eyes spotted one of the advertisements, it sent several of its employees to pose as restaurant customers – and found that more than 70 people had already made reservations to dine there.

The Green Eyes group petitioned the restaurant to let the shark go, while volunteers protested outside with placards and talked with the restaurant boss. This occasion, in March 2009, marked the first time the group had done anything to protect sharks. Zheng Yuanying, Green Eyes’ project manager, said the restaurant closed its doors when the protest started. Through a slit in the door, the protesters pushed in their petition and a waiter kicked it back out – an exchange that occurred several times.

The case got plenty of news media attention, making the headlines in some papers for three days running. Public opinion forced Guangdong’s fishery authorities to get involved, and a home for the shark was found in the Guangzhou Ocean Park.

While that was one of Green Eyes’ best results last year, shark conservation is not the group’s main focus. So far there is no native Chinese organisation specialising in the cause. Of the international NGOs working in China, US-based WildAid does the most work in shark conservation. In 2004, WildAid opened a Beijing office, working via advertising and public-relations people to advocate protection of sharks. Their slogan – “When the buying stops, the killing can, too” -- is well-known. Many Chinese personalities have acted as spokespeople, and WildAid hopes this will make more people aware of the facts behind shark-fin consumption.

Basketball star Yao Ming filmed a shark-protection advertisement last year, but the first time he acted as a spokesman for WildAid – in 2006 -- he ran into criticism after saying: “I pledge to stop eating shark-fin soup and will not do so under all circumstances.” Several marine-products merchants objected to his comment, complaining that it would impact negatively on the shark-fin market. Companies from China, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore added their signatures to a joint letter of protest.

Although the consumption of shark fin has long been criticised by animal-protection organisations, high-end restaurants in China all offer shark-fin dishes. It is seen as a simple luxury, popular at weddings, and scarcely anyone asks about shark protection.

Yet the American marine environmental group Oceana published a report in March stating that up to 73 million sharks are killed every year, mainly for their fins – and that many of these are then sold to China. The report from Oceana -- the world’s largest conservation organisation focused solely on marine issues -- was released in Doha, Qatar, during the 15th meeting of signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

WildAid director Steve Trent told chinadialogue that “sharks are in trouble”, adding: “Research shows that among the over 400 species of shark that exist at present, the numbers of many species are in the process of declining at a rapid pace; in some cases, this decline is out of control. Records show that the rate of decline among some shark populations is as high as 99%”

At the CITES meeting, a shark-conservation proposal was rejected on March 16. China voted against it, with the country’s delegation asserting that there was no scientific evidence that the fish are endangered and that CITES was not the appropriate platform for discussing the issue. (Indeed, every proposal at Doha to protect marine species – be they sharks, bluefin tuna or corals -- was voted down.) According to Elizabeth Griffin, a marine scientist with Oceana, China opposes shark conservation in part because of the hallowed place that shark-fin soup holds in the country’s culinary tradition.

Fang Minghe, secretary-general of Green Eyes, said that China presently sees the issue from the perspective of the economic value of the shark – and most species are only regarded as ordinary seafood products.

In January, China Central Television’s financial channel broadcast a report on the three-decades-long journey to riches of shark-fin merchants in Puqi, a town in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang. The single town has dozens of shark-fin processing plants, but the programme focused on that owned by one trader, Wang Xingbiao. His plant can handle 6,000 to 7,000 tonnes of shark fins annually – worth 40 million to 50 million yuan (roughly US$6 million to $7.3 million). This was conservatively estimated as meaning the death of 10,000 sharks.

The report began with an image of a five-meter-long whale shark, weighing one tonne. Wang said it had been caught accidentally in fishing nets, rather than deliberately trapped. But the whale shark is the largest of all sharks and products made from its fin are seen as being of the best quality – so his words should perhaps not be taken at face value.

After the broadcast, the programme set off fierce debate in the online forum FreeOZ. The originator of the topic pointed out that while the world was attempting to save sharks, CCTV was singing the praises of the processing plants and promoting it as an “enriching experience”. Asked the originator: “How could a national TV station be so stupid? I’m speechless.”

(In November of last year, another CCTV channel broadcast “The Men Who Make Money from Sharks” – which also recounted how the shark-fin traders were getting rich.)

Wang explained in the January programme that local coastal fisherman initially caught sharks to eat the meat; there was no market for the fins. But in the 1980s, the market expanded in line with the Chinese economy and the number of people making a living from the trade increased. As business grew, 95% of China-caught sharks were brought to Puqi for processing.

But WildAid’s Trent points out that China also has long been a major importer of shark fin. According to Oceana’s report, nearly 10,000,000 kilogrammes -- 10,000 tonnes -- of shark fins were imported into Hong Kong, the world’s largest single market for the product.

There are big profits to be made in the trade, which is supported by the Chinese people’s attitude to shark fin; it has long been seen as a symbol of riches and status, or as highly nutritious.

Not all Chinese can afford to eat shark fin, of course. Since the first records of its consumption in the Ming dynasty, it has been a delicacy for the rich and powerful. Today it is still the choice of those groups – and is sometimes associated with the corrupt use of public money for wining and dining.

Compared with the fins, there is little value today in the actual shark meat. So, to save room on their boats, fishermen slice off the fins and dump the rest of the shark back into the sea, where the animal dies, either because it can no longer swim or from loss of blood.

This practice is widely denounced, but as the shark products that are consumed in China come mainly from elsewhere, few Chinese people are concerned. A survey carried out across 16 Chinese cities by WildAid and the China Wildlife Conservation Association found that most people who were interviewed were not aware that fish-fin products were made with shark fin. Meanwhile, some believed shark fin has medicinal properties, despite a lack of scientific evidence for this belief. In fact some research shows that shark fin has high levels of harmful substances such as methylmercury, DDT and arsenic.

Views are old and fixed, and there is a lot of money to be made, so it will not be easy to reduce shark-fin consumption in China. Wang Song, a retired researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Zoology, has worked on animal conservation all his life and has often seen Chinese people eating wild animals, not just shark. He says that contact with the outside world since reform and opening up has changed a lot of attitudes but it will take more than a couple of generations for change to be complete.

A lack of systemic support for changes is another obstacle. Fang Minghe explains that during the Green Eyes campaign to save the nurse shark, he was uncertain about what would happen. The nurse shark has no legal protection in China and all the group could do was make a moral appeal. If the restaurant in Guangzhou had not cooperated, the authorities would have been powerless to act.

Trent says it’s not just China – there is no law anywhere in the world preventing unsustainable shark consumption. He suggests taxing shark fin as a luxury product, thereby reducing consumption and providing funds for government oversight. But the main problem is that there is not enough supervision of shark-fin import and export, as well as consumption, data in many countries, including China.

“No one needs to eat shark fin,” says Trent. “It is a luxury. Even if we do want to eat it, unless we control consumption and make it sustainable, then soon there will be no sharks or shark-fin soup.”

Huo Weiya is operations and development manager for chinadialogue in Beijing.

Homepage image from Shark Savers

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Delicacies and nutrition

Most Chinese have a psychological need to taste a delicacy. What one hasn’t tasted, one has to at least give it a try. Where one hasn’t been, one has to at least take a look. Under this psychological need, whether they are educated or not, most of the protected animal and plant species can only become their faeces.

The concept of ‘organic’ (organic chicken): Eating wildlife allows some Chinese to be proud.

For some people, eating wildlife causes such shame that they cannot show their faces.

(This comment was translated by smc.)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Save our mother nature

Dear Chinese people in China, I urge you to save the sharks from extinction. It is not worth it to push them into extinction for your luxury cravings. It is not worth your health to consume them either. Shark fins in fact retard your reproduction system and ruin your next generation health. Sharks are apex predator in the ocean,it maintain the balance of the underwater world, just like the important of sun in our food chain. Please don't take mother nature for granted as we all are going to pay back.

Chinese outside of China

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




刘晓湖(音译) Xiaohu Liu


It's not worth it.

Chinese food especially Cantonese food has evolved beyond the necessities of taste and nourishment to the realm of fetish. Instead of believing in superstition and indulging in status spending for these ridiculous items, try some more globally accepted luxury goods to display your class (if you are so inclined).

There's a whole world of over-priced status items out there. Try wine, cigars, scotch, champagne, haute cuisine or art collection. Just please you're particular eating habits is making a mockery of all Chinese.

Xiaohu Liu

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous







Traditional cuisine

Oppose the use of traditional cuisine as a guise – shark’s fin can be completely banned in China.

I strongly request sight of a report, to tell me exactly the percentage that shark’s fin occupies in the traditional Chinese cuisine. What inviolable sacredness?!

Shark’s fin is not actually of any tradition. For hundreds of years the population actually did not eat it. After the Revolution and the opening up of China, Cantonese cuisine was gradually introduced into Mainland China from Hong Kong, Macau and the Guangdong coastal areas. With the popularity of Hong Kong television series and films, in which every extravagant scene must have some form of abalone, shark’s fin or bird’s nest, the Mainland Chinese public feels like that is real enjoyment.

Nowadays the ordinary Mainland Chinese people have money, and these types of highly priced foods are considered necessary, especially during business dinners. Expensive things and credibility – isn’t that what you want? How about I cook up some ‘famous hundred-year-old traditional noodles’ costing several thousands of dollars?

Nowadays more and more Hong Kong people are refusing to eat shark’s fin. I hope that the ‘nouveaux riches’ Chinese folk will learn from it.

(Translated by smc)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Great to see your article

Huo Weiya's article on the plight of sharks was great to see! A change in the dining habits of wealthy Chinese people -- encouraged by celebrities such as Yao Ming and Jackie Chan -- is crucial to saving these magnificent animals and ending the cruel practice of finning.
Scientists and campaigners have long warned that sharks are likely to be among the first round of marine extinctions caused by humans. Whenever a shark attacks a person, the incident becomes big news. But people attack sharks -- in huge numbers -- every day, and all too often very little notice is taken.
Let's not wait until the sharks are all gone before we pay attention. -- Matilda

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我持有人类学学位,对于文化相对主义和全球意识方面很精通。然而,我相信中国缺乏基本的对生态的了解。生态系统相互作用的以初级,次级和第三级的捕食行为为基础。顶级掠食者对于个生态系统的整体活力是不可或缺的。如果鲨鱼数量锐减,则次级掠食者将上升到难以为继的水平,从而消耗掉所有其下的鱼类,等等。在我们看来是有必要维持一个适当的平衡。对于低级物种,这种情况的后果也是一样的,就像在Rachel Carson的名著 Silent Spring 其中叙述,广泛使用DDT杀灭蚊子后,鸣鸟的数量大幅下跌。最终,中国人若要改变饮食习惯,最重要的是要有一个自然与生态的整体观。这样大家能够了解原因,从而改变,而不仅仅通过监管来约束。



Holding a college degree in Anthropology, I am well versed in terms of cultural relativism and global awareness. However, I believe that the Chinese are lacking a basic understanding of ecology. Ecosystem interactions are based on primary secondary and tertiary levels of predation. Top predators are integral to the overall vitality of an ecosystem. If the shark population is decimated then the secondary predators will rise to unsustainable levels and thus consume all of the underlying fish etc. As we see it is necessary for a proper balance to be maintained. The same goes for lowlying species, as seen in Rachel Carson's famous book Silent Spring which outlined the huge decline in song bird populations after DDT was widely used to kill mosquitoes. Ultimately, a holistic view of nature and ecology is imperative for the Chinese to change their eating habits as then they will see the reason rather than just the regulation.
By: 3li4s

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




The shark's fin powers

Among the consumers of shark's fin there are many strong individuals, many of which also control the legislative resources. Driving China towards a reduction in the consumption of shark's fin still requires a division of the market. Only then they can start working on the different market sections.

From t.sina.com.cn