China: We need to talk about shark’s fin soup

I have only been to one Chinese wedding, which was in Shanghai a few years ago, though I managed to miss the ceremony and only attended the reception. This was held in a Sichuan restaurant, the name of which I have long since forgotten, though after a big of digging it might have been Xinxianghui 辛香汇. Chinese weddings are usually accompanied by a banquet or feast, and this one was no different: in amongst the speeches, the videos, the games, and the many dress changes for the bride, came multiple courses, each with some significance and tradition behind them. The two that I remember the most are the starter, which was a plate of sliced jellyfish in a slightly spicy sauce, and a dish that was served a little later: a bowl of shark’s fin soup.

Shark’s fin soup is well-known as a Chinese delicacy, and can be traced back to the Ming Dynasty, some 700 years ago, where it was part of the Imperial cuisine. The bowl that was placed before my fellow wedding guests did not contain a large piece of fin, such as you might see in adverts, but instead held something that looked more like a thick soup with egg mixed into it – which I am certainly not averse to. The flavour of shark’s fin soup comes more from the other ingredients, as the fin itself provides a supple and gelatinous texture, which is not unpleasant; after a few mouthfuls it was quite clear what I was eating, and I stopped suddenly, in something of a moral panic. In China, it is perfectly acceptable for guests to not finish their food, and is almost a compliment to the hosts’ generosity. Leaving the soup wouldn’t be some terrible social faux pas, and I wouldn’t be insulting my hosts, if they had even noticed what I was doing. It was just that this bowl of soup, and countless of bowls of soup like it, now comes to represent the practice of shark finning, a cruel method of harvesting fins from live sharks, which are pulled from the oceans in their millions, have their fins hacked off, and are thrown back into the water, where they are left to sink and die.

The above video does not make pleasant viewing. It is China and the Chinese diaspora which drives the demand for shark’s fin, and this demand has lead to estimates of 75m to 100m sharks being slaughtered each year. It’s not just in Mainland China that they get sold, either, as I recall shops in Yokohama Chinatown being full of packaged fins, as well as fins being displayed in restaurant windows. Clearly, there is a long way to go, and campaigns led by Wild Aid, and starring Chinese celebrities such as Yao Ming, have been running in China for some time.

Furthermore, the CCP brought in a ban on shark’s fin soup being served at government banquets in 2012, setting out a 3 year timeline for it to take full effect. In China, where the government leads, the people will hopefully follow. Giving substance to the CCP’s plans, the Guardian last year reported that sales in China have dropped considerably, with prices bottoming out to the extent that some Chinese fishermen in Guangzhou are looking for other sources of revenue. Wild Aid produced a report on the impact of their campaigns which, coupled with the CCP’s action, has indeed led to promising results. However, they warn that the trade continues, with fins in markets in China having been found to have come from the Philippines and Peru, pointing to the global scale of the trade.

Whilst government bans do have an impact, and their taking the lead on the issue can be applauded there still remains an market for animal products in China, which is deeply ingrained within certain parts of the country – particularly the south. This demand has spilled over into neighbouring Myanmar and Laos, where restaurants and markets that sell a whole range of endangered animals – some critically – will no doubt take up the slack. The lawlessness and relative poverty of the areas make the Chinese tourists and money that flow in a vital aspect of the local economy, and there is little doubt that it is a fertile ground for a continuation in the demand for shark’s fin.

As Wild Aid states in their report, awareness campaigns, as well as government crackdowns, can and do have an effect, and their continuation will secure some hope for the many species of sharks that have found their unfortunate way onto CITES critically endangered species list.

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