Shark population threatened by Hong Kong’s taste for soup

Story posted May 6, 2015 in News, Hong Kong by Kelsey Tamborrino


Large shark fins are put on display in this window on "Dried Seafood Street" in the Sheung Wan district iof Hong Kong. The fins are commonly used in shark fin soup. Photo by Kelsey Tamborrino

HONG KONG – Storefronts filled with the yellowish hue of dried shark fins, crisp and ready, line the streets of the Sheung Wan. The smell of the sea permeates the air.

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One street in the colorful old neighborhood is called “Dried Seafood Street” and has become a center for the trade of dried commodities. Fishing boats from all over the world arrive with full cargo to be unloaded and carried from piers to this street.

Sitting in a clear plastic bag in one of these stores is a controversial product of this market: dried shark fins. The bag, which holds the stiff, triangular fins, reads a price equivalent to US$593, the going rate for one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of shark fin.

These fins are a delicacy in Chinese culture, used frequently for soup.

While shark is consumed all over the world, it is the appetite for shark fin soup in Hong Kong and China that environmentalists say has sparked the widespread slaughter of sharks.

Recent studies show that 100 million sharks were killed globally last year, whether for their fins or other parts. That number continues to rise. Meanwhile, sharks kill six people on average per year, globally.

Ran Elfassy, of Shark Rescue, called Hong Kong “ground zero” for shark trade.

“People here eat a lot of shark fin,” he said via email. “But just as importantly Hong Kong is the biggest player in the supply chain.”

While the mass quantity of sharks that are killed will ultimately affect the ecosystems of global waters, experts say – it is the fact that the slaughter of sharks is unregulated that frightens environmentalists.

Today, no shark fin ban in Hong Kong or in China exists.

Environmental activists say that the fight to remove shark fin soup from menus has seen major strides in the last few years. Young residents are staying away from shark fin soup, and the Hong Kong government, in some part, has recognized its negative impact. In recent years, the government banned shark fin soup at official government banquets – following China, which did the same.

But Gary Stokes, director of global marine conservation group Sea Shepherd, believes the problem persists – and that it’s about more than soup.

He argued the problem isn’t about shark fins anymore. It has expanded to the trade of other parts of the shark as well. Fishermen, he said, are finding new ways to utilize the animal.

Because of this, today, the world faces a “global shark crisis,” Stokes said.

And it’s a crisis with an image problem: How does one convince people to stop being afraid of sharks and start being afraid for them?

A look at Hong Kong’s fins

Shark consumption is rooted in China’s history – and thus Hong Kong’s as well, Mary Szeto, of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, said. Shark fin soup has symbolized health and wealth since the Song Dynasty, the era of Chinese history that began in 960 and continued until 1279.

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The soup is a “money-making dish,” she said. It is comprised of broth and seasoning, which highlights the fin – a relatively tasteless meat, with a texture that is as  unique as China.

“Shark fin is deep in Asian people because it is a really expensive, kind of luxury,” Szeto said. “If you go for dinner and there is no shark fin served, it seems like you ill-treated your guest.”

Szeto said the soup is consumed most often around March and April – after the Chinese New Year.

Many people will organize what is called a “spring dinner,” to symbolize a positive start to the new year, she said.

 “There are still lots of people who care about this. They love shark fin. They think it’s good for health, [will help them] stay younger and has lots of collagen,” Szeto said.

All of which has been proven false – shark fin also has little nutritional value, she said.

Tracy Tsang, senior program officer for sharks at World Wild Fund for Nature, said many parents in Hong Kong and China demand shark fin soup to be served at their children’s weddings.

“Parents will always say, ‘Because you are my daughter – you are my precious daughter – I don’t want you to marry a poor guy,’ so shark fin is very important to tell all the guests in the wedding banquet that the husband is very rich,” she said. “He could take care of my daughter.”

Shark fin soup ranges in price in Hong Kong. But Szeto said it has been sold for the equivalent of about US$130.

Today, however, fishermen are becoming more efficient in their practice and are able to capture more sharks than before. Because of this, the price has gone down to as low as the equivalent of US$25 per bowl.

That coupled with the fact China’s economy is on the rise, results in more people who can afford to buy the soup that was once out of their price range. 

The importance of Hong Kong’s free port

Although many of the fins are eaten in Hong Kong, they are also re-exported from there to places like Vietnam, Singapore or mainland China.

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And while studies show fewer Hong Kong residents are consuming sharks themselves, the area is still exporting countries like China, where demand is high, Sea Shepherd’s Gary Stokes said.

The anti-shark fishing campaign is by no means universally supported, and fisherman and those who buy and sell shark fins are especially critical.

Ricky Leung, the chairman of the Marine Products Association, said over the past few years, consumption has been going down – all because of anti-shark propaganda and attacks on the fishing industry.

Leung said it’s a fallacy that sharks are dwindling at an alarming rate. He believes in regulation, he says, of fishing those species that are truly threatened. He cited blue sharks, classified by scientists as “near threatened.”

“It’s a distortion,” Leung said, adding that blue sharks are “plentiful in the ocean.”

Hong Kong accounts for 50 percent of the global trade of shark fins. The region handles roughly half of the total global volume of fins traded each year, with about 120 countries bringing shark to the city, according to the Bloom Association, a marine conservation group in Hong Kong and France.

“Apart from Russia, almost every country that has a coastline. They export fins to Hong Kong. There’s not many local people – Hong Kong people – who know that,” Stanley Shea, of the Bloom Association, said.

He said people often ask why environmentalists are “whining about sharks.” But they don’t consider the small size of Hong Kong, and how globally, the region takes natural marine resources from almost every coastline, he said. 

A recent Bloom survey indicated that the fins are the most coveted shark commodity.

Fins are sometimes gathered through the practice of shark finning, which occurs when fishermen cut the fins from sharks they catch and then throw the sharks back to the ocean to drown and die. The use of solely shark fins equates to using only 3 to 5 percent of the shark.

The role of sharks

The impact of sharks on the health of the ocean’s ecosystem is real, say experts.

Tracy Tsang, the shark expert at the World Wild Fund for Nature, said shark populations are decreasing rapidly. While that might seem welcome news to anyone with an image of sharks popularized by the famous 1970s movie Jaws, Tsang said their extinction would have disastrous results – causing extreme changes to the delicate aquatic environment in global waters.

According to Oceana, a conservation and advocacy organization, sharks are  “apex” or top predators, which eat animals below them in the food web. In doing this, sharks regulate and balance marine ecosystems.

Sharks regulate the abundance, distribution and diversity of other species, among other things, according Oceana. As top predators, they also provide essential food sources for scavengers and remove weak individuals from prey populations.

Elfassy, of Shark Rescue, said via email that finning could have a rapid impact in any given area.

“Sharks are slow to mature and when they have young – called pups – they only have a few,” he said. “So it doesn’t take long to dramatically reduce a population.”

Just one fishing boat can wipe out a population in a habitat, but it can take decades for sharks to come back, he added.

Aiming for awareness

Activists say awareness of the collective impact of many bowls of soup is growing, though. In April 2015, Bloom and the University of Hong Kong released the findings of a survey of about 1,000 Hong Kong residents. It found that the popularity of shark fin soup had declined. More than 90 percent of those surveyed agreed that it is either “very acceptable” or “acceptable” not to serve shark fin soup at a wedding banquet, compared to 78.4 percent five years ago.

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The survey found that 44.3 percent of respondents did not eat shark fin in the previous 12 months, compared to 17.5 percent in 2009.

While activists regard those results as promising, organizations such as Shark Rescue still fight the ambivalence of consumers who see no harm in the killing of a creature they see as a threat in the sea.

Elfassy found that in Hong Kong, shark and marine conservation were not priorities. He saw an opportunity to make a difference. To kick off the organization, which he founded, Elfassy went to Sheung Wan, to Hong Kong’s Government House, dressed as a finned shark. He presented Shark Rescue’s first call to action.

 “The damage to the balance of marine habitats is so severe that we really must act now,” he said. He added, “Shark Rescue’s position is that if we don’t care enough to demand what’s right, then who will?”

Elfassy said fishermen around the world let their greed bring serious harm to the environment.

The idea that attitudes can change quickly gives hope to activists.  Mary Szeto, of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, said her organization and others struggle with the “fear factor.”

Hong Kong Shark Foundation tries to educate children starting at the kindergarten level. It also has university and corporate programs.

Szeto said it is best to educate those who are young, so they have a concept: “Shark shouldn’t be eaten, and we have to protect them.”

The message is slowly taking hold.

 “We’ve got loads of five-star hotels, who’ve all canceled it, airlines are canceling, it’s just not cool anymore, which is exactly the message we wanted, said Stokes, of Sea Shepherd.

The cost of progress

Across the border in China, though, it’s a different matter. There, a massive, fast-growing middle class with an appetite for shark as a delicacy could eat up any progress in Hong Kong.

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“It only needs to grow like a quarter of a percent of the population of China and it negates everything that happened in Hong Kong,” Stokes said.

Economic growth in China, as well as in Hong Kong, has allowed middle-class families to afford shark fin soup.

One way to combat even the most affordable shark fin soup is to make it inaccessible by banning it, which Shark Rescue and other organizations advocate. But timing is everything.

The Hong Kong government has been preoccupied in dealing with the recent “umbrella revolution” and its own upcoming elections in 2017, Szeto said.

 “If we do not go in at the right time, we would just waste all of our money and manpower,” she added.

Her solution for right now is to gradually change cultural ideals so that shark fins don’t have the same appeal.

“Every year maybe a certain number of fins can be imported into Hong Kong. So the less we have, less people can enjoy it,” she said. To dampen appetites can be tough in a city that embraces Chinese culture, traditions, and cuisine, though.

Wedding bells

Cultural ideals in China are perhaps no more on display at the traditional wedding banquet.

In Hong Kong, weddings are important for both the local market and expatriate community, said Kimberly Nelson, marketing and events executive at Bliss Creations, a destination-wedding planner.

“Culturally and traditionally, the local Chinese culture has large banquets to celebrate with all of their friends and family as a symbol of keeping the strong relationships alive throughout the duration of the couples marriage,” Nelson said in an email. “Expatriates get married in Hong Kong as the city is either where the couple met, where they live now, or is perhaps a special city for their relationship.”

Weddings in Hong Kong have become more extravagant for those who can afford it. The style of the wedding usually depends on how traditional the couple and the family of the couple want to keep to their culture.

Demand for shark fin soup has declined the past few years in the wedding banquets, Nelson said. In fact, she has never had a couple request the soup.

“We have had many couples make sure the dish is not a part of their reception dinner,” she said.

The fishermen

But efforts to diminish demand for shark fins is also one that diminishes the livelihood of many in the global fishing industry, said Ricky Leung, of the Marine Products Association.

 “It’s actually unfair to tell the public to not consume shark fin,” Leung added. “It’s harmful to the entire [fishing] industry.”

Leung said he is concerned for fishermen in places like the Caribbean, where sharks are finned. The fishermen are extremely poor and live in meager conditions, he said. Shark fishing keeps them employed.

Leung said the fishermen lack expensive resources, like electricity, making fishing for other animals – like lobsters – unlikely. They don’t have the facilities to store and process them. In the case of shark fins, these fishermen can catch the sharks, and use the nature, sunshine and wind to dry and salt the fins.

“I am concerned for the livelihood, the living of the fishermen,” he said. “This is all they have.”

On the streets of Sheung Wan, merchants are also feeling the effects. After visiting multiple stores, a visiting reporter could find no shark fin salesman willing to attach his name to his opinion on shark trade.

Some argued it “wasn’t a story.” Others claimed environmentalists had ruined their business.

But others said the demand is steady – shark fins are still being sold in stores for a reason.

What’s next

The Sea Shepherd’s Gary Stokes said he isn’t as concerned about shark fins as he once might have been. “It you stop shark fin soup right now, it wouldn’t save the sharks,” he said.

What scares him is that the appetite for other parts of the shark is growing, especially in the U.S.

Now, sharks are being killed for the fins but also for other parts, such as their meat, liver oil, and cartilage.

Although some will argue this is better than discard 97 percent of the shark, the market demand is far too high, Stokes argues.

He pointed to chondroitin sulfate, which are shark cartilage capsules.

The chondroitin sulfate industry is killing, Stokes estimated, about a third of the world’s sharks, and the American market for the sulfate is huge.

“[It’s] to the point where people are traveling from America on the holiday, elderly people, and they say, ‘Oh when you go over there, can you bring back chondroitin?’ Because one [Asian] pill is about the equivalent of three or four in America,” he said.

 Sea Shepherd is in the process of opening an up a legal department to fight on many fronts – including those outside of Asia.

 “It’s a global problem – where it’s just about money,” he said.