A bowl of shark fin soup. Photo: CFP
Wu Qicheng, executive chef of Kara Kitchen, a Cantonese food restaurant in Beijing, announced Friday that he would stop cooking shark fin dishes as he was determined to make all his dishes environmentally friendly.
Wu learned shark fin cooking from his father, a renowned "shark fin king" in Guangdong in the 1930s. As the only successor to his father's expertise, he said he would no longer pass on this skill to anyone and would persuade other chefs to give up the dish.
Traders are also less enthusiastic at Yide Road in Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province, which is home to the largest dried sea food wholesale market in Southeast Asia, with more than 1,000 stalls.
The market used to supply 70 percent of China's dried sea food with sales of 3 billion yuan ($471 million) annually, but it saw a steep decline in what was once the market's most popular and pricey item: shark fin, a traditional Chinese dish that is cut from living sharks and regarded as a highly nutritional delicacy.
Many store owners displayed the fins in prominent places to attract customers and dealers from around the country and even the world. But now they are focusing on other seafood such as abalone and sea cucumber.
Cai Qingxin, a shop owner at the market, said there are no shark fins readily available at his store and that he would only deliver when customers placed an order in advance.
According to Cai, prices of shark fin range from 200 yuan per kilogram to 8,000 yuan per kilogram at the market depending on the size, shape, length and dryness of the fin.
"A type called Yajian fin that costs about 1,000 yuan per kilogram is the most popular," Cai said.
"But sales at my store have dropped by 50 or 60 percent since 2008 due to rising costs and shrinking profits as well as pressure from campaigns to ban shark fin consumption," he said.
Wu Huihan, secretary-general of Guangzhou Dried Sea Food & Nut Industry Association, said the average profit margin in the shark fin business is only 5 percent.
Compared to the wholesale market, restaurants and hotels reap a higher profit from shark fin cuisine. However, not all of them put shark fin soup on their menu, as the dish has become controversial.
"No consumption, no killing"
In 2006, former NBA star Yao Ming joined a global campaign to save sharks, with Yao appearing in a conservation video that showed a shark having its fins cut off and being dumped back into the ocean to die. The ads, which ended with Yao saying, "No consumption, no killing," raised awareness about the issue in China.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), about 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins.
To curb the illegal hunting of sharks for fins, 60 countries and regions have taken measures to contain the practice including requiring sharks being brought ashore to be wholly intact with their fins, and limiting the number of licenses issued to ships for hunting, according to WWF Hong Kong.
With many Chinese celebrities pledging not to eat shark fin, the campaign to reject shark fin consumption is gaining steam in China.
In November 2011, Hong Kong-based Peninsula Hotels became the first major hotel chain to ban the sale of shark fin dishes, followed by the Shangri-La hotel group, which announced in January it would stop selling shark fin dishes at all of its 72 properties worldwide.
Ding Liguo, a deputy to the National People's Congress, said Friday on his microblog that he had received a reply from the State Council, which will approve a March proposal to ban shark fin dishes from being served at official banquets.
The campaigns have put a chill into the shark fin market in Hong Kong, through which 50 percent of the world's shark fins are imported, most of them then sold to the mainland.
"The shark fin trade has dropped by 20 percent in Hong Kong since 2005," said Charlie Tin Que Lim, secretary-general of the Hong Kong-based Marine Products Association (MPA).
"The industry is unfairly treated and cornered by environmental groups who campaign for the ban," he said.
Trade bites back
In December, the Sustainable Marine Resources Committee of the MPA held a meeting, rebutting the attacks launched by environmental groups against the trade and calling for fair treatment of people in the business.
The committee said it believed shark fin consumption would not lead to the depletion of shark numbers and that the ban on shark hunting amounts to a waste of marine resources.
Citing the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the committee said that of more than 400 species of sharks in existence, only four are subject to trading restrictions.
According to Lim, secretary-general of the MPA, shark fins are a mere byproduct of shark hunting and shark meat is a major source of revenue for fishermen.
"Shark meat is mainly consumed by Westerners while shark fins are traditionally eaten by Chinese. Why do these environmental groups not lobby against consumption of shark meat and only target the eating habits in China?" Lim said.
Mexico City sells 1,000 tons of shark meat annually while Canada exports 200 tons of dog sharks as food annually, the Canada-based North America Weekly Times reported recently.
"We are ashamed of the illegal hunting of sharks only for fins by some fishermen but those are only exceptional cases. Most fishermen can efficiently use sharks they hunt according to regulations," Lim noted.
"Marine resources are sustainable and sharks won't become extinct as long as shark hunters follow rules and regulations," Lim said.
However, Wang Xue, a member of Beijing-based environmental NGO Green Beagle, said that sharks mature late, produce few young, and are therefore particularly vulnerable to over-fishing.
According to Wang, China has no rules to regulate shark fishing because there are no sharks in the country's coastal waters.
"The consumption of shark fin by the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan people leads to illegal shark hunting all over the world," she said.
While debate continues between environmental groups and those who support the shark fin trade, the fact that China remains the world's largest consumer and importer of shark's fin is incontestable.
Chen Yumin, director of the Environment & Animal Society of Taiwan (EAST), said hunting sharks for fins is illegal and traders should stop using loopholes in the regulations.
"If the groups supporting the shark fin trade really care about the sustainable development of the ocean, they should join the environmental groups in lobbying the authorities for legislation," Chen said.
"All imported shark fins should have a label attached that proves the sharks were brought ashore wholly intact, including their fins, to reduce the over-hunting of sharks," she said.