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.

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