Shark fin backlash hits major trader Hong Kong

Hong Kong is the world’s shark fin capital, where about half of all fins are traded. But a backlash from environmentalists and consumer groups is pressuring restaurants to stop serving dishes containing shark fin.

Harvesting is what fishermen call the brutal act of cutting the fins off of living sharks and throwing the torso back into the ocean. Around 50 percent of all shark fins worldwide are traded through Hong Kong. In 2008 around 10,000 tons of fins from 87 countries passed through the city’s ports, according to the environmental organization Oceana.

For environmentalists like Stanley Shea of French-founded Bloom Association, that must change. He is fighting against finning by raising awareness in Hong Kong.

“We try to understand when we eat the fins and when is the biggest occasions,” he said. “Then when we are understanding the theme, then we can start moving on developing a strategy to reduce the demand of shark fins.”

Shea and fellow activists have been quite effective. Over the last two years governments in Hong Kong and mainland China, as well as big corporations and hotel chains, have announced they will take shark fin soup off their menus and banquets.

It is in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan District where a lot of the shark fin trade happens. Here the local marine-product industry is suffering.

Inside the small shops merchants talk freely about how little shark fin they sell these days. But in front of a camera nobody wants to mention shark fins; it is just too sensitive, they say.

Not far away, at restaurant Lin Heung Kui, shark fin soup is a common dish on the menu. Around lunchtime, it is mostly the elderly and a few tourists who frequent the place.

“We prepare and serve the fins in lots of ways – with a clear soup or with shredded chicken. It is definitely more popular at night. We offer an especially cheap deal at $88 at the moment, but sometimes people come to get more expensive dishes,” said a restaurant employee. The 88 Hong Kong dollars is about $11 U.S.

Shark fin soup has been the food of the rich and wealthy for hundreds of years in China.

But times are slowly changing, said Veronica Mak, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who researches eating habits.

“Not consuming shark fins becomes a kind of signifier to show you are a socially responsible person. In the past, when you wanted to show your social status, people made shark fins a signifier in a banquet, but nowadays this signifier changes,” she said.

Shea said young people were increasingly interested in social responsibility. He said that helped make his campaign a success in Hong Kong.

“I can see kids, like students, and whenever I go to talks or seminars about the marine conservation and the shark fin issue, they know about the shark fin issue already. And they are eager to learn more and get more knowledge about the marine species,” said Shea.

The activists in Hong Kong believe that awareness and education is the key to change consumer behavior. And less demand for shark fins will result in fewer sharks finned and fewer left for dead.

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