INTERVIEW - Chinese Consumer Key to Saving World's Sharks
Author: Ben Blanchard
In recent years, shark numbers have fallen drastically, threatening the existence of some species, and while exact scientific data is lacking, figures show imports of shark fin rocketing in China, said Steve Trent, president of WildAid.
"China is key. All the best estimates suggest that 70, 80, 90 percent of shark fin is for the mainland Chinese market, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan," Trent told Reuters.
"As increasing wealth and income comes to Chinese consumers, they are spending it on luxury goods like shark's fin soup, and that means there is a pressure that is now no longer sustainable on these species in the wild," he said.
Shark fin, once offered as a gift to emperors, is traditionally served at Chinese wedding banquets and occasions when the host wants to impress guests with expensive and unusual dishes. Some also believe it is good for health.
The UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates 100 million sharks are caught each year, though experts say the real figure could be twice that, leading to a dramatic drop in the populations for some species.
Another problem is that most sharks are caught just for their fins.
"They are taken on board, their fins are hacked off and they are dumped back into the water dead or dying," Trent said.
On Wednesday, the San Franciso-based WildAid unveiled a series of short television messages featuring basketball star Yao Ming and Chinese Olympic gold medal gymnast Li Ning to spread the conservation message.
"As we progress as a nation and society becomes more driven by money and the increased desire to quench our taste buds, we should take a step back and reflect," the towering Yao said, after vowing to give up eating shark fin.
WildAid has already been screening messages that use other celebrities such as Jackie Chan on satellite television across Asia, but this year it started showing them on terrestrial Chinese television, potentially reaching a far larger audience.
"There is an interest in conservation here that is mounting very fast, and if that is tapped into, it can translate into action and dramatically reduce the number of shark fins taken," said the British activist, a founding director of WildAid.
The problem has global implications, with fishermen as far away as Ecuador's supposedly protected Galapagos islands catching shark specifically for the Chinese market.
"This is hardly surprising when we can maybe expect to see around 250 million new Chinese middle class coming online over the next decade or so," Trent said.
"And shark's fin being a strong, cultural, culinary interest, these people are going to want to consume, unless they're made to realise it's causing a real problem."