More than 70 million sharks were killed last year, largely to satisfy the demand from China’s newly rich for shark fin soup. The good news is that consumption of shark fin soup in China is down by about 60 percent in the last two years. Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, a San Francisco-based group that has promoted awareness about the shark trade, has been a key player in bringing awareness to the plight and value of sharks in the ocean ecosystem.
The first big shift of perception began in earnest in 2006, when WildAid enlisted Chinese professional basketball player Yao Ming, who played for the Houston Rockets, to front a public awareness campaign. One of their ads showed diners refusing the soup when confronted with the reality of sharks whose fins had been sliced off and watching the finless fish be tossed back into the sea to die.
A successful businessman, Jim Zhang, was so moved that he began working to change attitudes about sharks, eventually becoming a full-time environmentalist. In 2010, he conducted a poll on the popular microblogging service Weibo that drew 30,000 participants, 99 percent of whom supported a ban on shark imports.
“That really encouraged me,” Zhang said. “I realized that we have a voice here, and we have to take action.”
Zhang convinced about 30 members of China’s 2,987-delegate parliament, the National People’s Congress, to sign a proposal in 2011 calling for a ban on shark fin imports. The government rejected the initial proposal, but by 2012 the Chinese government pledged to ban shark fin soup from official banquets within three years. This year, as part of its new campaign against extravagance, instructions went out to officials to ban lavish banquets. They were instructed to serve “ordinary food” and not to offer shark fin soup or dishes made with protected wildlife. In September, similar instructions were sent by the government in Hong Kong, a major center for the shark fin industry, “to demonstrate its commitment to green living and sustainability.”
China’s state-run media, China Central Television, ran a series of reports this year that found that restaurants were serving fake shark fin soup, using starch, gelatin and seaweed gum. Even more damaging was the finding that many soup samples contained dangerous levels of cadmium and methyl mercury. Demand for shark fin soup decreased dramatically.
China’s Commerce Ministry said the consumption of shark fin soup during this year’s Spring Break holiday had declined by 70 percent from last year. In Hong Kong, industry groups say imports of shark fin have declined by between 20 and 30 percent this year. The price for shark fins is falling globally and anglers in parts of Africa are turning away from the trade. In Beijing’s Marine Dry Products Market, traders said business was down by about 70 percent.
Education remains the key to conservation.
As Peter Knights knowingly stated, “It is a myth that people in Asia don’t care about wildlife. Consumption is based on ignorance rather than malice.”