Protect Endangered Sharks: Celebrate Chinese New Year with Sustainable Food Choices

Chinese New Year -- the longest, most important and festive holiday in China -- began on February 10th. It is a week-long holiday in mainland China that includes family reunions, dinner feasts, and fireworks that last for two weeks straight. Food, in particular, is a highlight for most during this time of year, as families gather and dine on possibly the most delicious and lavish meal of the year. It is a wonderfully festive and celebratory time. Unfortunately, it is also a time that is popular for consuming shark fin soup, a delicacy that has traditionally been served at wedding, business and Chinese New Year banquets.

Shark fin soup

A surge in demand for shark fin soup is typical during Chinese New Year, as those who can afford it serve it to show off their wealth. Because of the recent middle class boom in China, more and more people have been able to afford the delicacy, which has sparked an extremely lucrative market. The global market value of the shark fin trade is estimated at a minimum of $400 to $550 million a year. To fit more fins onto their boats, fishermen have been widely practicing finning – slicing off a shark’s fin and discarding the body back into sea. This practice is terribly inhumane, wasteful, and unsustainable, and is currently responsible for the slaughter of between 26-73 million sharks each year, threatening one in three shark species with extinction. Sharks are apex predators crucial for maintaining healthy population levels of other marine species. Without sharks, numerous unpredictable population changes would occur and damage the marine ecosystem.     

Finning is not only critically threatening shark populations, but shark fins can be dangerous for human consumption. Last month, authorities in Zhejiang Province found many shark fins sold in the market with excessive levels of cadmium and methyl mercury, both toxic metals harmful to human health. Being at the top of the food chain, sharks end up accumulating all of the toxic materials that have been consumed by smaller fish. This is concerning, particularly because nearly one third of all shark fins are consumed during Chinese New Year. In fact, certain factories often stock up on supplies in anticipation for the surge in demand.

Fins on rooftop.jpg

15,000 to 20,000 shark fins drying on a rooftop in Hong Kong on January 2, 2013.

While Indonesia and India catch the most sharks, Hong Kong and China are the two biggest importers, consuming roughly 95 percent of the world’s shark fins. To raise awareness of this destructive practice, a number of campaigns have sprouted and contributed to the passing of numerous shark protection legislations around the world. Last year, China banned shark fin soup from official state banquets, while Taiwan banned the practice of finning completely -- the first Asian country to do so. Additionally, several luxury hotels in Asia have begun to remove shark fin soup from its restaurant menus. The Peninsula Hotels, with chains around the world, banned shark fin soup from its Asian hotel chains in November 2011.   

Since then, other hotels have followed suit. Shangri-La Asia banned shark fin from all of its 72 hotels in January 2012 (just before Chinese New Year). The Four Seasons Hotel removed it from their menus (but still offers it upon request). A Beijing luxury hotel, Swissotel, has also stopped serving shark fin soup. However, most restaurants have not stopped serving the dish, which can cost up to $320 per serving. A survey sponsored by environmental NGO Green Beagle found that only 17 out of 249 luxury hotels in Beijing, Shenzhen and Fuzhou have stopped offering shark fin soup in its restaurants. Ultimately, governments must pass the necessary laws and legislations in order to achieve significant progress.

It will take a coordinated and concerted effort between government, businesses, advocacy groups and citizens alike to stop the demand for shark fins. Surveys by a Hong Kong-based NGO indicate that 88 percent of consumers in Hong Kong want the government to stop sales of products that involve killing endangered species. The momentum is shifting but change won’t come easy. While the younger Chinese generation is beginning to see the harmful effects of shark fin consumption on both shark populations and human health, there are still many others who hold the tradition dearly. California’s ban on the sale, trade and possession of shark fins has met with stiff opposition from certain sectors of the Chinese-American community, claiming that the ban will hurt Chinese businesses and is discriminatory against the Chinese population.   

The reality is that global shark populations are in danger because of the enormous demand for shark fins. The Peninsula Hotels have started offering alternative menus for banquets that replace shark fin soup with sustainable types of fish soup. And in just one year, WWF’s Alternative Shark-Free Menu got 97 caterers and hotels in Hong Kong to join. Additionally, there have been reports of imitation shark fin soup made up of artificial fins from edible gelatin that restaurants are selling at the same price as the real dish. While these sales are fraudulent to consumers and must be prohibited, they demonstrate that substitutes for shark fins exist and are worth considering for those who must serve them. Chinese New Year can and should be celebrated sustainably, and we can do this by making more responsible food choices.

This blog was coauthored with my colleagues Leila Monroe and Christine Xu.

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