Restaurant in Kowloon, Hong Kong, via Steve Webel/Flickr
The high demand for shark fin soup, seen as a delicacy throughout much of Asia, has long been a contributor to the decline of many shark species worldwide. But thanks to aggressive conservation campaigns aimed at swaying Chinese public opinion—featuring none other than NBA star Yao Ming—demand for shark fins has plummeted in the country that once was once of the world's largest consumers.
Around 100 million sharks are killed worldwide each year, largely for food. And while not all shark fin soup is the product of abhorrent finning practices—in which sharks' fins are cut off, and the rest is tossed back to die—it's still a major source of demand for shark fishing. Recently, India banned the practice of finning, a big step for the world's second largest shark fishery. And earlier this year, five new species of threatened sharks received international protection, a basic step that was 20 years in the making.
Both are good news for sharks. But as a great read in the Washington Post details, China's growing disillusion with shark fins is likely to have an even greater impact on shark populations:
Shark fin soup is believed to have been created more than 1,000 years ago by an emperor in the Sung dynasty who was trying to show off to his guests. Consumption of the expensive soup was revived in recent years at banquets and weddings as a sign of social status.
But it became so popular that 10 of the 14 species of oceanic sharks most commonly fished for their fins are at “very high” or “high” risk of extinction — including iconic species like the Great Hammerhead — and the other four are approaching that status, according to conservation groups.
Just a few years ago, most Chinese people were oblivious to what was happening. One survey carried out in 2005-2006 showed 80 percent of respondents did not even know the soup – known in Chinese as “fish wing” soup — was made with shark fins.
That last point is key. It's not that people intrinsically are uncaring about the environment or driving species to extinction; they may not even know they're doing so. And when they learn what's happening, they change.
“People said it was impossible to change China, but the evidence we are now getting says consumption of shark fin soup in China is down by 50 to 70 percent in the last two years,” Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, which has been a leader in raising awareness about sharks and the wildlife trade in general, told the Post. “It is a myth that people in Asia don’t care about wildlife. Consumption is based on ignorance rather than malice."
Efforts to capitalize on sharks in different ways than killing them are also valuable for developing conservation efforts. For example, a recent study showed that shark-based tourism is a more lucrative industry than heavy fishing. It's also important to note that sustainable fishing doesn't mean no fishing at all, as shark stocks can be harvested sustainably with proper population assessment and fisheries management.
That said, the popularity of fin soup has led to years of overfishing, which has harmful cascade effects that can carry through overfished waters. And as we've seen in many animal trades, protecting a sensitive population from high demand is best done by attempting to quell the demand itself. Regulations and enforcement of those regulations are key, but if people want a product, they'll find a way to get it; it's happened over and over again. But get Yao Ming to tell you your soup is pushing sharks to extinction? That can pay off.
So what of the elephant ivory and rhino horn trades, which are both at crisis levels? Yao is a notable example, as he's also done work to promote awareness of the threats to those species. It hasn't paid off yet; a record number of rhinos were poached this year, and the elephant slaughter continues largely unabated.
Still, it's the right path to take. Efforts to combat poaching itself, such as Kenya's microchip plan, are important and necessary. But truly ending the trade in ivory and rhino horn—neither of which are intrinsically valuable—means convincing people that buying those parts is paving the path to extinction. It hasn't happened yet, but if awareness efforts can convince China to lose its appetite for shark fin—something many thought could never happen—there's hope yet for quelling the demand for other threatened species.