Endangered: Shark Fin Soup
Good news out of China: demand for shark fin soup has dropped significantly.
The size of the decline and the reasons behind it are both in question, but the fact that fewer people are eating shark fins is unequivocally progress. I described the problems with shark finning on Care2 Causes last year:
Shark fin soup is considered a delicacy in Chinese cuisine, but there is nothing delicate about the way fishermen get the fins off the sharks. Fishermen catch the animal and drag it aboard the boat, hack off its fin muscles, then throw it back into the sea, unable to swim and certain to die. More than 70 million sharks every year drown, bleed to death or are eaten alive by predators after this mutilation.
The Washington Post reports that shark finning has put “10 of the 14 species of oceanic sharks most commonly fished for their fins” at “very high” or “high” risk of extinction, while the remaining four are getting close to the same status. The decimation or extinction of a species can wreak havoc on an ecosystem, meaning that serving shark fin soup hurts not only sharks but countless other ocean-dwelling creatures as well.
This makes the news that demand for shark fins is shrinking most welcome, even if the numbers are hard to pin down. There is evidence that consumption of shark fin soup has dropped in China by 50 to 70 percent since 2011. Though Treehugger cautions against believing official government data from China, the fact that Chinese industry corroborates the figures lends them credence. Evidence shows that demand is down by 20 to 30 percent in Hong Kong.
Several factors are contributing to the change in consumers’ preferences. One is a national campaign to raise awareness about the cruelty behind the soup. Popular former NBA star and native Chinese Yao Ming is the face of the education effort, which has included a commercial featuring him and showing dressed-up restaurant patrons pushing away full soup bowls after seeing the gory, violent journey of a fin from healthy shark to dining table.
The swell of popular opinion against shark fin soup gives the lie to stereotypes that Asian populations aren’t interested in animal welfare. Ecologist William J. McShea told The New Yorker that the “Chinese are very utilitarian,” with no interest in protecting animals who don’t serve a concrete use (like moon bears, milked for bile that is used in traditional medicine) and are not symbols of national pride (like panda bears).
To the contrary, the Chinese have rallied to Yao Ming’s cause. His campaign spurred a successful businessman to become a full-time environmental activist who mobilized tens of thousands of weibo (a Chinese version of Twitter) users to prevent the cruel finning of sharks. This kind of mass opposition to animal cruelty is not new in China, which is home to more vegetarians and vegans (50 million) than the U.S. has (30 million). Every country hosts animal cruelty — in the United States alone, 7 billion chickens are slaughtered for food every year — and every country has home-grown resistance movements, including China.
The public awareness campaign started seven years ago, in 2006, so it alone probably does not account for the sharp decline in demand over the past two years. A more recent development probably plays a large role: a government crackdown on corruption in the public sector.
Restaurants in China charge up to $325 for one bowl of shark fin soup, suggesting either that it tastes divine, or that people order it to show off their wealth. Reports are that the dish tastes bland at best (check The Yale Globalist, Time Magazine, this writer who likes eating live, moving crab but spurns shark fins, and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey, who says it “tastes of nothing”), so this is a clear and literal case of conspicuous consumption.
China’s government banned the soup from its functions because its consumption by public authorities smacks of corruption. Special interests would serve it to public officials at pricey banquets intended to woo them, and government workers were also buying it themselves, presumably at the state’s expense. The new ban has caused the soup to disappear from some high-end menus.
In addition to increased awareness of animal cruelty and the government’s crackdown on corruption, health concerns have played a role in steering people in China away from shark fin soup. Authorities recently reported finding dangerous toxins like cadmium and BMAA (which can cause degenerative brain disease) in the soup, even at high-end restaurants.
It isn’t great for sharks’ health either, so here’s to its continued fall from favor.
Photo credit: hamron