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Have We Saved the Sharks?

Reports of dramatic declines in shark fin soup consumption may be too good to be true



Neil Hammerschlag, University of Miami

“In China victory for wildlife conservation as citizens persuaded to give up shark fin soup.”  This October 19 headline in the Washington Post was one that marine conservationists had been waiting decades to read—and the story inside delivered, reporting a 50 to 70 percent decrease in consumption of the delicacy over the last two years in China. Demand for shark fin soup is one of the largest drivers of the global shark overfishing crisis that has resulted in one in six species of sharks, skates, and rays being evaluated as Threatened by the IUCN Red List. Given that demand for shark fin soup comes overwhelmingly from China, the reported decrease in consumption there would mean a major reprieve for sharks. But a closer look at the situation suggests that all is not as it seems.

Shark fin dealers attribute the reported steep decline in demand to conservationist’s campaigns in Asia aimed at educating consumers and distributors about the environmental cost of the prized dish. Indeed, many conservation nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been educating the public in China about the environmental cost of shark fin soup: San Francisco-based NGO WildAid utilizes Chinese celebrities such as basketball star Yao Ming to educate people about the inhumane and unsustainable fishing methods that support shark fin soup; SharkSavers, a New York City–based organization, has a “Finished with Fins” campaign that aims to get hotels and restaurants to voluntarily remove the soup from their menus. Another environmental campaign, led by Hong Kong–based activist and photographer Alex Hofford, is working to get airlines to refuse to carry shark fins into Hong Kong. Shark fin dealers have blamed this operation—which so far has led to full bans in transporting shark fin from Emirates, Asiana Airlines, Korean Airlines, Qantas and Air New Zealand—for decreased sales. “We want to put a stranglehold on the supply chain of shark fin imports to Hong Kong. And create noise,” Hofford says. “And it’s working.”

Cultural changes among young people are often cited as a reason for declining consumption. A survey of Hong Kong residents run by the Hong Kong–based Bloom Association, a conservation NGO, found that “66 percent said they were uncomfortable with the idea of eating an endangered species, and more than three quarters said they would not mind if it was removed from [wedding] banquet menus.”

Some conservationists attribute the reported declines in shark fin soup consumption to government attempts to curb public perception of luxury usage among government officials. The Hong Kong government’s own, more recent policy, motivated both by conservation and similar efforts to not appear extravagant, has yet to make an impact.

But could any of these factors really account for such a rapid decrease in shark fin soup consumption in China? Many experts interviewed for this piece were skeptical. For every hotel or restaurant that has taken the “I’m Finished with Fins” pledge, hundreds have not. Hofford reported that his campaign has yet to hear back from 21 airlines. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of shark fins are transported into China by sea, not air (although Hofford did note that the shipping company Evergreen Line is no longer transporting shark fin. Government officials make up only a small portion of the soup-eaters, so a change in their dining habits cannot explain such a decline either. And the same Bloom survey that found that many citizens would not mind if shark fin soup were removed from banquet menus also found that 89 percent of Hong Kong citizens had eaten the soup in the last year. Additionally, shark fin trade expert Shelley Clarke of Sasama Consulting said, “a China-led antismuggling campaign from October 2011 to March 2012 that was said to have effectively shut down the international trade,” probably only temporarily curbed consumption.

Customs data do show a significant decline in unprocessed shark fin imports into Hong Kong in recent years. Historically, most fins were imported into Hong Kong before being shipped to mainland China for processing and distribution. If this were still the case, then reduced imports into that port would in fact be indicative of overall reduced consumption. Changing economic conditions in China, however, are likely to have altered this supply chain (pdf). Clarke says, "the historical pattern of shark fins being imported by Hong Kong traders and then shipped over the border for processing has been shifting gradually toward direct import into the mainland since the early 2000s.” If many more fins than usual are simply being imported directly into China, then reduced imports into Hong Kong do not necessarily mean reduced consumption.

In 2012, in accordance with the Brussels-based World Customs Organization guidelines, Hong Kong changed their customs codes for shark fins. A report in the South China Morning Post mentioned that in 2012 “a large quantity of fins were recorded against a previously rarely used code and omitted from the total figure reported.” This reclassification could easily be at least part of the reason for a reported drastic reduction in reported shark fin imports.

The best available evidence, then, fails to support the claim that shark fin soup consumption in China has declined 50 to 70 percent in the last two years. But even if demand for the soup does eventually fade away, that shift will not assure the survival of sharks. The shark overfishing crisis is multifaceted and has arisen from a lack of management for many shark fisheries, inconsistent and incomplete regulations between fishing nations, and too many sharks of many species being killed for a variety of reasons including meat, cartilage and liver oil as well as incidental bycatch. Many scientists, conservation activists and fisheries managers continue to work on the larger, more complex problems facing sharks and, despite encouraging progress, they are not yet ready to declare “mission accomplished.”

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