The Wall Street Journal: Beijing to Strike Shark’s Fin From State Menus, 4 July 2012
Anti-shark fin protesters calling for a ban on shark’s fin at official receptions march towards Hong Kong government headquarters on May 13, 2012.
Shark’s fin soup, a traditional Chinese delicacy—but one reviled in much of the West—won’t be on the menu at official Chinese banquets in the coming years, according to state media.
This week, Xinhua reported that within one to three years, the country’s State Council plans to release guidelines banning shark’s fin from being served at official receptions.
Gelatinous, mildly flavored shark’s fin soup is a popular symbol of wealth and prestige across much of China, but activists say the country’s appetite for its chief ingredient helps fuel a global trade that kills some 73 million sharks a year, with 95% of all fins being consumed within China. As the country’s middle class has boomed, so has the ability of more ordinary Chinese to afford the dish, spurring demand for shark’s fin around the world.
Animal-protection groups around the world hailed the State Council’s news, with the Humane Society International saying it marked a “watershed moment for the global movement to protect sharks and pushes China onto the world’s stage as an emerging leader in shark conservation.”
Official Chinese banquets have come under greater scrutiny in recent years amid public anger at excessive government spending on such events. Earlier this year, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao announced plans to ban the use of public funds to buy “high-end” alcohol and cigarettes—a move that prompted the stock of popular, pricey Moutai liquor to take a brief nosedive.
Though China’s latest move on shark’s fin was widely praised, its proposed timeline for implementation has been criticized. “To ban one shark’s fin requires three years—what a laughable government,” wrote one Shanghai-based user on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging service.
“In three years, sharks will nearly be extinct,” wrote another user, also based in Shanghai.
Still, other activists lauded the move, saying it could push other governments in the region to back similar measures. In the southern Chinese territory of Hong Kong—which processes at least half of the global shark-fin trade, according to the World Wildlife Fund—activists said China’s latest announcement was an embarrassment to the former British colony, which returned to mainland control in 1997 but continues to operate with independent economic, political and legal systems.
In Hong Kong, shark’s fin are often found drying on the sidewalk, scattered in odorous clouds across the western part of the island. Apart from traditional soup, shark’s fin—which can cost up to $400 a pound—are also served as garnishes in other dishes, from dessert to dim sum.
According to the WWF, the city processes some 10,000 tons a year, much of it bound for China. Activists say the government has done little to clamp down on the overall trade or encourage reduced consumption. The Hong Kong government hasn’t banned shark’s fin from official banquets, says Tracy Tsang of the WWF, and “repeatedly dodged the question” whenever activists raise the issue.
The trade is legal in Hong Kong, though sale of shark’s fin has been banned elsewhere, including in California and various cities in Canada.
But public backlash against shark-fin consumption is on the rise, activists say. Earlier this year, Shangri-La Asia Ltd. said it would ban shark fin from tables across its 72 hotels. A survey of 1,000 Hong Kong residents published last year found that 78% of those polled felt it was “acceptable” to strike shark’s fin soup from the menu on special occasions, including weddings.
A government spokeswoman said Hong Kong is committed to protecting endangered species in accordance with CITES, the global treaty on the endangered wildlife trade, and that shark’s fin isn’t typically served at official banquets anyway. “When organizing official entertainments, we do emphasize that the occasion should be decent, but not give an impression that it is extravagant,” she said.
Bertha Lo of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation said that Chinese officials won’t miss much when shark’s fin are left off the table in the future. “People always think that shark fin’s soup is delicious, but that’s just the chicken broth,” says Ms. Lo. “Shark fin, itself, is tasteless.”
– Te-Ping Chen.