Friday, August 10, 2012

Waiter, there's a fin in my soup!

As the battle rages on in the “Shark Wars” in Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, with surfers and environmentalists at odds about proposed shark culling, China has made an unlikely but momentous move towards shark conservation – it has banned shark fin soup at official banquets.

China, the world’s largest consumer of shark fin soup, has announced that it will take up to three years to fully implement the ban, but “given the right circumstances this could happen quicker”.

As many as 73 million sharks are killed worldwide every year, an astonishing number. Sharks are under particular threat due to their conservative life history traits which are slow growth rates, late sexual maturity, long gestation periods and birthing only a few young at a time.


But, a worldwide movement to ban shark fin soup seems to be suddenly taking off. And at times it’s the most unlikely of champions taking the lead. In the US, survivors of shark attacks are raising awareness of the plight of sharks. Debbi Salamone, a journalist who survived a shark attack, joined scientists to conduct a nationwide survey of shark-fin soup in the US including DNA testing of soup ingredients. They discovered that consumers were not only unaware of what kind of shark was in the soup but that they were also eating animals on the endangered species list.

Back in Asia, the well known Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, one of the continent’s most prestigious hotel chains, has removed the dish form its menus. The group owns the Peninsula hotels. Up to 80% of the world’s shark fins pass through Hong Kong. But amazingly, sharks are not fished here.

Spain is the largest exporter of frozen shark fins to the Hong Kong market. Three European countries- the Netherlands, France and Spain- are the key traders in shark fin. Spain’s dubious leadership in this trade amounts to approximately 95% of all the fins exported by Europe.

Spanish and Portuguese surface longliners fishing sharks received more than €117,000,000 in EU subsidies from 1994 to 2007. The annual costs estimated by the sector represent, at most, 8% of this value. Of the subsidised vessels, 35 received more than €1,000,000 from the EU.

The EU which has supposedly banned shark fining in European waters now intends to close a loophole in its existing legislation which allows shark carcasses and their fins to be landed as long as they follow a prescribed fin-to-carcass weight ratio. The proposed amendment will force fishing boats to land sharks with their fins attached.

In Taiwan, although the top hotels are not following their counterparts in Hong Kong, the government has introduced fishing laws to ban shark fining at sea. It is the first Asian government to do so. Taiwan has the fourth largest shark-fin industry in the world. The new law doesn’t stop fisherman from taking sharks but it does make it illegal to land sharks in pieces.

In both the EU and Taiwanese laws, there is nothing preventing fisherman from taking fins off when boats come to port. But environmentalists see these rules and regulations as the first step towards a complete ban on the shark fining industry. And, it seems that the price of shark fins is dropping on the international market – a sign that perhaps awareness programs are working!

Nirmal Shah

Image: Munguia, Toonpool.com