Hong Kong shark fin trade declines

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Media caption,

Shark fins are a status symbol in China

Near the heart of Hong Kong's luxury shopping district is Dried Seafood Street. The shop windows here are full of dried golden fins stripped of skin and bones, arranged by size and shape.

Ones that are no bigger than a hand cost a few hundred dollars a kilogram.

The biggest ones, worth thousands of dollars each, are locked behind glass cases and displayed as trophies.

While the shops attract food lovers and tourists in equal measure, they are also drawing the ire of environmental groups.

In Bangkok this week, delegates at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) will consider adding more shark species to its endangered species list.

Currently the trade of three types of shark - the great white, basking and whale shark - is regulated under the convention.

Growing concerns

According to the World Wildlife Fund, appetite for the fins and other shark-related products has led to some shark species falling in numbers by 60-70%.

Meanwhile, the International Union for Conservation of Nature says that 181 species out of just over 1,000 known sharks and rays are now facing the threat of extinction.

At the same time, there are also concerns over the finning of sharks, which environmental groups claim is a cruel and barbaric process.

They say that fishermen catch the sharks, cut their fins, and toss the bodies back to sea where they usually end up dying.

However, shark fin traders in Hong Kong deny these allegations and even allege that the claims are part of an anti-Chinese conspiracy.

"Sharks are not an endangered species and Europeans kill them for the meat," says the chairman of the Shark Fin Trade Merchants Association, Ho Siu Chai.

"So why are the Chinese not allowed to eat the fins? Western environmentalists are discriminating against the Chinese," he adds.

Trade impact

Mr Ho says that the anti-shark fin campaigns are starting to hurt traders as he points to dozens of bags of processed shark fins that line the front of his shop.

He says that a few years ago, the fins would have been sold immediately after they finished cleaning them.

"Now they're stockpiling in the shop. It's tough to sell them," he says, claiming that his sales dropped by 60% in 2012.

Image caption,
Shark fin traders say their sales have been hurt amid protests by environmental groups

And it is not just Mr Ho who has seen a decline in sales.

Statistics from the Hong Kong government show that imports of raw and prepared shark's fin between 2006 and 2011 ranged from 9,400 to 10,300 metric tonnes a year.

Much of the imports are consumed in Hong Kong or re-exported to mainland China. Conservation groups say that the Chinese territory accounts for half of the global trade.

However, last year imports into the territory dropped by a third to 3,350 metric tonnes.

At the same time, Chinese authorities are also clamping down on lavish banquets, which traditionally served the shark fin soup.

"That is hitting the shark fin industry hard," says Mr Ho.

Meanwhile, the anti-shark fin campaigns have resulted in some five-star hotels in the Chinese territory removing shark's fin from the menu.

Even flagship carrier, Cathay Pacific Airlines, has banned shark fin on cargo flights.

Losing appeal?

According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, the practice of eating shark's fin can be traced back to the Ming dynasty.

Chinese emperors were said to covet shark's fin because the elaborate preparation made it feel decadent.

The delicacy is usually eaten in soup. It is cooked for hours until the fin separates into chewy strips.

For most Chinese, eating shark's fin still remains a status symbol.

While there have been calls for that to change, it is too early to say whether Chinese taste buds can be altered.

The Banqueting House is one of the first restaurant chains to offer a shark fin-free menu.

At a spring festival gathering in February, the Hong Kong Pui Ching Alumni Association ordered a 10-course meal but opted to replace the shark's fin soup with a chicken, fish belly and abalone soup.

Most guests at the dinner supported the idea.

"Eating shark's fin feels luxurious but I think fining is a cruel process so I think it's good that we find alternatives," says 16-year-old Richard Loo.

But the parent company of the Banqueting House, LH Group, says that the elderly Chinese still prefer to have shark's fin as part of the food offering on special occasions.

It says that less than 5% of its customers chose the alternative menu last year.

"Young people want to conserve sharks but their families feel that shark's fin must be served at important events such as wedding banquets," says the executive director, Simon Wong.

"Otherwise the older generation think they will lose face to their guests."

This attitude means that stopping the shark fin trade is likely to be a long and tedious process.

After all, the Chinese still believe that the best way to display their wealth is on the dinner table.