Sales of shark fins dropped by 50-70% over the past two years, according to a report by WildAid, with an 82% decline in sales reported by shark fin vendors in Guangzhou (the global centre of shark fin trade), as well as a 47% decrease in retail prices, and a 57% drop in wholesale prices. In an online survey, 85% of Chinese consumers surveyed cited awareness campaigns as a their principal reason for ending their shark fin consumption, with the second and third most popular reasons being that they “want to protect the sharks”, and that sharks are killed in a cruel way (Evidence of Declines in Shark Fin Demand in China, p2). These are key messages of WildAid’s awareness campaign, illustrating the impact that a culturally sensitive, focused campaign can have.
“When the buying stops, the killing can too”
WildAid has been carrying out a shark fin awareness campaign in mainland China since 2006, with (now former) NBA star Yao Ming being the key figure, starring on posters and in television public service announcements. WildAid report that in 2006, public awareness of the issue of shark finning was almost negligible: the dish is called “fish fin/wing soup” in Chinese (鱼翅汤), meaning that 75% of people surveyed were unaware of the source of the fins, and that 19% believed they grew back. Very few knew of the negative impact on shark populations, but that lack of knowledge began to change once the campaign took hold, and in 2008 an independent survey revealed that 82% said they would reduce or stop their consumption of the dish as a result of the campaign, and 89% saying that shark fin soup should be banned. WildAid also report that in an online poll on Sina Weibo, 27,370 people voted for a ban on shark fin sales, with only 440 against – indicative of strong public support. In 2013, WildAid launched the “I’m FINished with Fins” pledge campaign with Sina Weibo, reaching 200 million Weibo subscribers. 50 million posts were read, and 340,000 users uploaded photos or signed the pledge in the first two weeks (Evidence of Declines in Shark Fin Demand in China, p12).
The partnership with Sina Weibo is a strong sign of the change in habits and traditions triggered by WildAid’s campaign. Shark fin soup is often eaten at weddings and banquets, and is a luxury item that was traditionally eaten at the Imperial court, bestowing respect and honour to the guests. The willingness of the Chinese public to move away from a dish with such rich cultural heritage, but with a massive environmental impact, is very encouraging, as it indicates that there is an environmental sensitivity that can be tapped into to bring about change. The Chinese government, as part of their crackdown on consumption and excess, also banned shark fin from all state banquets – and they credited the WildAid and Yao Ming campaign for this. In 2013, the Hong Kong government followed suit, and banned shark fin and other unsustainable seafood products from government functions.
Whilst a Chinese ban on the possession and trade of shark fin would strike a massive blow against the trade, WildAid reports that the decrease in popularity has resulted in a significant drop in prices for wholesalers in Guangzhou. With wholesale prices having dropped 47%, and retail prices 57%, there is economic pressure on the fishermen and companies that trade in shark fin to move on to other products, or to lessen their reliance on shark fin as a source of income. WildAid point out that their evidence of a downward trend in shark fin prices and consumer demand, they suggest that further awareness campaigns focused on demand reduction and government product bans – both of which impact prices and demand – are needed to aid the conservation of shark species. There are an estimated 100 million sharks killed each year, with 70 million killed for their fins. This is a number that needs to be driven down further, but WildAid’s successes show that, with the right support, it can be done.