Souring on Shark Fin Soup

When I was a kid, shark fin soup was de rigueur at wedding banquets. Somebody got married, and slurp — there we were, eating the stringy soup at an elaborate 10-course affair in a private party room in Chinatown. It was pleasing, but in the salty, gelatin-thickened way of Thanksgiving gravy. Shark fin itself is virtually tasteless — the soup’s flavor relies heavily on chicken stock, ham and a generous pour of Chinese red vinegar. We ate it because everyone else did, and everyone else ate it for the same reason.

In China, shark fin soup has been a staple banquet dish of the aristocracy since the Ming dynasty. It fell out of favor after the 1949 Communist revolution, but later resurged in popularity among the moneyed classes in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. A decade and a half ago, the market for shark fin shifted back to mainland China, where a new middle class found itself able to afford a delicacy once enjoyed by a privileged few.

Hong Kong is the global trade hub for shark fin, handling about half the world’s imports; it sends most of them on into China. Buried in trade figures released at the end of 2012 by Hong Kong’s Census and Statistics Department was an intriguing number: 3,100 metric tons, the amount of shark fin imported last year (excluding December). It marked a precipitous drop from the 10,300 metric tons imported in 2011. Local news outlets and activists pointed to this figure as tangible evidence that campaigns to curtail demand in mainland China were working.

These claims got my attention: success in China would be an important step toward saving sharks from extinction but also toward showing how changing mass-consumption behaviors could benefit the environment.

Shark fin trade figures have always been elusive — there are no annual records, for example, on how many sharks are killed for their fins or are dumped at sea in the process. Like whales and dolphins, sharks are slow-growing, large ocean animals whose continuing depletion has huge, cascading effects on the marine ecosystem; according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, nearly a third of shark species assessed are at risk of extinction because of overfishing.

In 2006, recognizing the environmental threat, WildAid, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, began a TV and social media campaign, with public service announcements by Yao Ming, Jackie Chan and Ang Lee. The goal: to make eating shark fin socially unacceptable.

“People say you can’t change China, but I would submit that no other society in the history of the world is changing as quickly as China is today,” says Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid. It is possible to change public perception, he told me, because new middle-class tastes are being created. In Chinese culture, shark fin soup is about honoring (and impressing) your guest; traditionally, the groom’s parents chose a menu to signal prosperity. (As my mom says, nobody wants to look cheap.) WildAid figured that the answer might lie in making your guest want something else.

Harvard behavioral scientists have studied how drawing attention to what your eco-conscious neighbors are doing — curbing water consumption, using less electricity — changes our perceptions about what is normal and influences how we act. What if shark fin soup no longer meant “the best,” but something else? If brides objected to the dish, what alternative status symbol would take its place? A top contender: French wine.

THE application of these principles by WildAid and other environmental groups seems to have created a ripple, if not a wave, in Chinese consumption. Guo Jingjing, a four-time Olympic diving champion and WildAid ambassador, declined to serve shark fin soup at her recent wedding. Her rationale? These days, killing sharks means losing face, not saving it. Jennifer Yang, a wedding planner for Beijing’s China World Hotel, says that some parents of brides-to-be still try to request shark fin, but the younger generation is balking. One bride, Amy Liu, even told Ms. Yang that the practice of slicing fins and dumping the animals back in the ocean made her lose her appetite.

To the Chinese, status is vital not just at meetings of the in-laws, of course, but also in business and diplomacy, and there have been signs of social change here as well. A campaign by WWF-Hong Kong has persuaded more than 150 corporations, including HSBC and Alibaba, to eliminate shark fin soup at their functions. Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts stopped serving shark fin at its 116 properties, half of which are in China. Last summer, the Chinese government announced that it would stop serving the dish at official state banquets. The media have also jumped on the anti-shark-fin bandwagon: recent investigative reports by CCTV, China’s largest television network, reported that much of the shark fin served at top restaurants was fake and that actual shark fin was full of mercury and devoid of nutritional value.

Of course, it’s important to consider other reasons for the drop in reported trade. Nearly all the Hong Kong customs codes for imports changed for 2012, and a large portion of the shark trade may have been reclassified. Shelley Clarke, a fisheries scientist who published the first systematic study of the shark fin trade in 2006, believes that China’s recent austerity drive and a rumored internal crackdown on smuggling have had a powerful complementary effect. But Ms. Clarke agrees that increased awareness is part of the picture.

“It’s a fantastic awakening that the Chinese public has had,” says Sonja Fordham, who is president of Shark Advocates International and led the first efforts to establish American and international bans on shark finning. Mr. Knights told me that traders had been cutting their prices by 40 percent, and multiple sources — from fishermen in Indonesia to undercover agents in China — reported a 50 to 70 percent sales decline in 2012. New data from the Census and Statistics Department show fin imports in the first quarter of 2013 down another 40 percent from the first quarter of 2012, using the new coding categories. While it’s unclear how much reducing Chinese demand will stem the global harvest of sharks, these are encouraging signs, and not just of local import.

The potential to change the consumption patterns of the Chinese middle class has powerful implications for every conceivable commodity, from beef and cars to electricity and water. The government’s apparent embrace of the campaign against shark fin consumption is also crucial. Any long-term solution to overfishing — or climate change or air pollution — will require progressive policies as well as progressive consumers.

When Chinese brides say no to shark fin soup, we should all take notice. The future preferences of consumers in China and India add up to far more than just local custom. Declining shark fin consumption may be a lesson that there is an accounting for taste after all.

Bonnie Tsui is a writer based in San Francisco and the author, most recently, of American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods.

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