Shark Fin Economics

Growing Wealth Spurs Appetite for Endangered Seafood

September 17, 2004

BEIJING -- As China's middle class grows wealthier, it's not just cars and houses they're buying. Their appetite for high-end seafood once enjoyed only by the elite, such as shark fin, abalone and turtle, is expanding enormously.

This insatiable demand is devastating marine populations, pushing some species to the brink of extinction and threatening to upset the balance of ocean ecosystems.

Conservation groups estimate that millions of sharks are killed every year, many just for their fins.

"Shark catches are increasing and are unsustainable," said Sonja Fordham, a shark expert at the Ocean Conservancy, based in Washington, D.C. She said the populations of many shark species have declined sharply because of overfishing. "Once a population is depleted, it can take many decades, even more than a century, to come back to healthy levels."

Sharks get caught in nets and on lines with tuna, swordfish and other seafood valued by commercial fishermen. Their fins are sliced off to dry on deck while their bodies are tossed back in the water.

Those fins are transported hundreds or thousands of miles away, mostly to Hong Kong, and are eventually cut into gelatinous strings resembling noodles, boiled for hours with some chicken stock, maybe a little minced ham and Chinese herbs, and sold in restaurants for as much $100 for a single bowl of soup.

It has been a prized luxury food in Asia for years, but increasingly, the people dining on shark fin soup are in mainland China.

Finning, the practice of removing a shark's fins and throwing the dying animal back in the water, has been banned in U.S. waters since 2000. Still, most countries have no such restrictions, nor are there any international limits on shark catches.

Because many shark catches are unreported, no reliable data are available. Based on Hong Kong trade statistics, the shark fin market is estimated to be increasing by at least 5 percent each year, said Samuel Lee, a program officer based in Hong Kong for TRAFFIC, a wildlife monitoring network.

"All we know is that the market in mainland China is growing and growing," Lee said.

High-priced seafood restaurants, which used to be concentrated in Guangdong, the southernmost province bordering Hong Kong, have proliferated up the coast throughout China and even into less affluent inland cities.

"The competition is more and more intense," said He Cheng, manager of the Liu Fu Shark Fin Restaurant in Beijing. "In the past, just a few restaurants had shark fin, but gradually, it's become more commonplace."

These restaurants serve not just shark fin, but abalone, sea cucumber, tropical fish and freshwater and sea turtles, all species at risk of becoming endangered, said Xu Hongfa, a Beijing-based wildlife specialist at WWF, a conservation organization.

The demand for abalone, a shellfish, has driven prices up as much as 30 percent this year, said He, the restaurant manager. Much of the supply comes from South Africa, where illegal abalone poaching is ravaging coastal areas. A single abalone in a Beijing restaurant can cost as much as $120, the equivalent of more than a month's wage for a factory worker.

Conservationists are also worried about tropical reef fish, such as grouper and Napoleon wrasse (also called humphead wrasse), once common throughout Asia Pacific but now increasingly rare due to their popularity at lavish banquets. A single fish can cost hundreds of dollars.

Peter Mous, a Bali-based fisheries expert for The Nature Conservancy says what's happening on the coral reefs of southeast Asia is worse than the plight of the Atlantic cod, driven to near extinction by overfishing.

"Now some populations of some fish species have declined to such low levels, it's questionable they'll ever recover," he said.

A study published in the journal Science last year estimated that populations of all shark species except makos had declined by 50 percent in the last eight to 15 years, and as much as 89 percent for some species, such as the hammerhead. International trade is restricted in only two species, the whale shark and the basking shark, but because of the difficulty in identifying which species a fin comes from, control is nearly impossible.

The sad irony is, few people actually seem to enjoy the taste of shark fin.

Shark fin is also valued in China because it is believed to be highly nutritious. But medical experts in China have stated that its nutritional value is a myth and not any better than drinking milk or eating other meat for protein. Its use in traditional Chinese medicine has also been disputed.

"It's kind of hard and chewy. I prefer crab or shrimp," said Zhang Xinyuan, a university student in Beijing who has had shark fin soup several times with her relatives. "No one I know really, really likes it. It's more to show your status or show respect to your guests."

He, the restaurant manager, admits that shark fin "has no taste itself." Ordering an expensive item is mostly a way to show off, to impress a guest or client or to curry favor with someone. Such rituals are a common part of doing business in China.

"I would say 80 to 90 percent of people are ordering it out of obligation," said Guo Xiaofeng, a computer engineer who's dined on abalone and shark fin about a dozen times, mostly for business. "They want someone to help them with something, so they choose an expensive restaurant."

Yet with no public awareness campaigns in China, shark fin soup is celebrated as another uniquely Chinese custom. The China Daily even published a recipe for shark fin soup a few months ago.

Guo said he would never order shark fin soup himself.

"I'd rather spend my money on something else," he said. "I'll only eat it if it can't be avoided."

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