Consumption of delicacy drops as wildlife conservation movement gains momentum
Singaporean groom Han Songguang took his campaign to stop consumption of one of Asia's top delicacies to a new level when he placed postcards of a dead shark on each guest's seat at his own wedding banquet.
Instead of shark's fin soup, a must at many ethnic Chinese wedding banquets, Han offered his guests lobster soup.
"If we can do our part to save X number of sharks ... why not?" said Han, a geography teacher, who married a diving enthusiast in December.
Wildlife conservationists, who have long railed against the popularity of shark fin soup, are finally seeing signs that consumption is dropping as young Asians become aware of the environmental impact of this much-prized dish.
Added to that is the global financial crisis, which is causing Asians to tighten their belts and either cut down on visits to restaurants or order more frugally from menus.
A symbol of wealth and status in Chinese culture, shark fin soup has long been an essential part of banquet celebrations for weddings and to welcome the Lunar New Year.
Until recently, only the rich could afford the soup. But demand has soared in recent years, hand-in-hand with rising affluence in East Asia. The quantity of shark fins demanded, around 800,000 metric tonnes a year, has caused a sharp decline in shark numbers. About 20 per cent of all shark species are now endangered.
Wildlife conservationists also decry the killing of sharks through "finning," whereby the fins are cut off and the live shark is tossed back into the sea. Unable to swim properly, the shark suffocates or is killed by predators.
"Today we have incredible access to information. It has become much harder to say, 'I didn't know,' " said Glenn Sant, marine program leader of the British wildlife group Traffic.
He urged young Asians to take a stand and say: " 'It shouldn't be an insult not to put shark fin on our wedding menu.' "
Despite efforts to ban "finning," environmentalists say it is still carried out across the region as fishermen want the valuable fin but don't want to store the rest of the shark, as its flesh fetches low prices at fish markets.
As young Asians such as Han take a stand against shark fin soup, environmentalists hope for a long-term drop in consumption.
Still, there is a robust market of older consumers who demand the soup at auspicious events.
"Students and people in their 20s wouldn't go to a shark eatery, and $15 for a dish is no cheap price," said Joyce Wu, program officer with Traffic.
Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and China, including Hong Kong, are all major shark fin consumers, according to a Traffic report. Trade in shark products was worth $310 million US in 2005, with fins 40 per cent of the total, the report says.
Those numbers are coming down as younger consumers eschew the delicacy of their parents.
Worldwide shark consumption dropped from a peak of 897,000 metric tonnes in 2003 to 758,000 in 2006, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Fins make up an increasingly small percentage of the total, Traffic says.
Sharks live a long time, said Yvonne Sadovy, a biology professor at the University of Hong Kong. "They have a low reproductive rate. In in other words, they produce just a few young every year or every few years. So you just can't take a lot."
Tastes have changed along with awareness for young Asians. Shang-kuan Liang-chi, a National Taiwan University student who has tried the crunchy jelly-like dish twice at formal events, prefers other food and avoids a shark fin restaurant near campus. "University students never go in there," he said.
Even chefs are hoping to turn the tide. At Singapore's Annual Chefs' Association dinner, shark fin traditionally served at the occasion was taken off the menu.
"It is much harder to stop serving shark's fin in our restaurants, as the consumers still demand it," said Otto Weibel, a food manager at one of Singapore's top hotels. "However, in our personal capacity, we can make a stand."
Global entertainment giant Disney bowed to pressure from animal rights activists and took the delicacy off its menu when it opened Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005.
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