San Francisco-based non-profit, Pacific Environment and its Chinese non-profit partner Green Longjiang, just released this report in Chinese on the shark fin trade increasing in the city of Harbin. Apart from de-finning being a cruel practice, sharks are top predators without which whole ecosystems collapse. The most powerful example of this phenomenon that I have seen is the extermination of the grey wolves of Yellowstone National Park, here in the United States. In the 1920s, the U.S. government exterminated all wild wolves in the park to protect cattle ranchers. After that point, the elk and other herbivores were free to eat everything they could and multiply, destroying the forests of the park. In 1995, after the Endangered Species Act was passed, wolves were reintroduced to the park and within only a few years, the trees were growing back. The images on this NRDC blog post dramatically illustrate the difference.
The case for sharks lacks a famous illustration or example. There is comparatively little research on the impact of sharks on their environment, partially because it is impossible to isolate a section of the ocean and compare it with and without sharks. This blog post had a good picture of a reef without sharks. In the same way that wolves protect trees from elk, sharks protect coral reefs from algae growths by eating the predators of small algae-eating fish. Without sharks, smaller predators multiply and eat all the algae-eating fish, allowing the algae to destroy the reef. Data in 2006 indicated that 73 million sharks were removed from the oceans every year.
The report indicates the predictable, but disturbing trend of wildlife consumption expanding into new cultural and geographic areas due to increasing affluence. Despite the efforts of many non-profits--I particularly liked WildAid's video campaign in 2008--and the Traditional Chinese Medicine community offering synthetic substitutes, it is still fashionable to consume exotic wildlife in China. China needs a great push, mostly from student groups and non-profits like Green Longjiang, to educate newly middle class citizens on the impacts of their purchases--someone needs to figure out how to make it un-cool to eat shark fin.
Look out for an up-coming article from us on shark consumption in China.