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By Guillaume Kroll
Mr. Wang is a happy man; his son just got engaged to the daughter of a good family. To celebrate the lovebirds’ future union, he has invited everyone to the Koi Palace, one of Wenzhou’s finest shark fin restaurants. In the Chinese culture, shark fin has long been a symbol of class and status. Traditionally, it was only consumed by an exclusive and wealthy minority who could afford it. Yet, with the country’s rapid economic growth, more and more people can now afford to eat the luxurious delicacy, and global demand is booming.
What Mr. Wang and his guests probably ignore is that the increased demand for shark fins has largely outpaced the species’ regenerative capacity. It is now believed that if nothing is done, up to 20 species of shark will become extinct within 10 to 20 years.
So what? Fewer fair-haired Australian surfers eaten up on their boards might not be a bad thing, right? Well, it’s not so simple. A depleted shark population, it turns out, puts both the future of marine life and coastal communities in jeopardy.
That’s because sharks are apex predators. The oceans depend on them to keep the numbers of other species in check and ensure that fish populations remain strong and healthy. Because sharks are at the top of the food chain, they reproduce and mature slowly. That means that they are slow to replenish when overfished, and the entire the ecosystem suffers.
The impact for artisanal fishermen is particularly worrisome. Studies show that in many regions shark finning has resulted in the loss of commercially important fish species down to the food chain. As a result, fishermen must travel further to find fish, which requires more fuel and larger boats — driving them into decreased income and debt.
Shark finning, the practice of cutting off a shark’s fins after it has been caught, is also barbaric. After the fins are removed, the animal is returned to the sea, where, unable to swim, it dies slowly and painfully from suffocation or blood loss. The fins, which represent only 3 percent of a shark body weight, are kept on board, while the rest of the meat goes to waste. It’s estimated that up to 73 million sharks are killed each year this way. That’s more than two sharks a second.
Shark finning is not a new phenomenon, but something must be done now if we don’t want to be responsible for the extinction of 450-million-year old species. The current economic incentives are too strong for the practice to stop. As long as markets provide an opportunity for quick profit, the shark fin trade will continue, in spite of its terrible environmental and social consequences. But the situation is not hopeless. Governments, the private sector, and civil society all have a role to play. Three initiatives could get us a long way toward a positive future for marine life and people alike.
The first is to decrease shark-finning through government policies. Five U.S. states, from California to Illinois, have already passed bans prohibiting the possession, sale, and distribution of fins. Meanwhile, island countries like Palau, Maldives, and the Bahamas have put in place shark sanctuaries, areas forbidding shark-finning with the support of local populations. Such policies need to scale up, and fast.
Second, consumer demand must decrease. Embedded in the Asian culture, shark fin soup is often obligatory at business dinners or weddings. Stopping the practice is particularly difficult, yet not impossible. Shark fin has no nutritional value and is practically tasteless. Its texture is goopy and gelatinous. Few eat it because of flavor. Its value is traditional, not essential. Reaching out to the public, restaurants, and other businesses to educate people about the impact of shark-finning is key.
Finally, sustainable alternatives to shark finning should be promoted and further developed. Environmentally friendly aquaculture, sustainable fisheries, and shark dive ecotourism are viable economic alternatives, all of which would ultimately benefit artisanal fishermen.
Sharks are much more valuable alive than in a bowl of soup. They are critical to ocean health, marine ecosystems, and the lives of billions of people in coastal communities. The immoral practice of shark-finning must be stopped now before it is too late.
Mr. Wang might do well to recall that the Chinese Communist Party has prohibited shark fin soup from official state functions. While this ban will take three years until it takes full effect, it sends a clear message that even the Chinese government recognizes the unsustainable practices here. Perhaps Mr. Wang’s guests wouldn’t mind Peking Duck if they knew what lay beneath the shark fin on their plates.
Guillaume Kroll is a master’s degree candidate at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and Vice President at the Society of International Business and Development. Follow him on twitter @guillaume_kroll.
[Photo courtesy of Zhi Yong Lee]