Asian consumers are turning against shark's fin soup but not fast enough to save shark populations

It's been ten years since Yao Ming announced his pledge to stop eating shark's fin soup. Taking aim at the hearts of Chinese consumers - the world's most prolific consumers of sharks' fins - the NBA star made this heartfelt appeal: "Remember, when the buying stops, the killing can too."

More recently, other global figures have lent their voice to the cause, compelling hotel and restaurant groups, logistics service providers and airlines to stop serving or transporting the product, which is considered a delicacy in parts of Asia.

In June, Hollywood actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Morgan Freeman supported the Shark Fin Elimination Act of 2016, a bill designed to ban the sale of sharks' fins in America. The act of finning a shark is already illegal in U.S. waters.

In the same month, Hong Kong flag-carrier Cathay Pacific imposed a ban on transporting sharks' fins, joining more than 30 other airlines that have pledged to halt shipment of fins and other shark-related products.

Unsustainable fishing has left a number of shark species on the brink of extinction. Studies have shown that between the 1970s and now, the numbers of commonly finned sharks have declined by up to 99 percent.

A photo from June 2007 of basketball star Yao Ming on a billboard designed to raise awareness of wildlife preservation. The Chinese eight-time NBA all-star retired in 2011.
Frederick J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images
A photo from June 2007 of basketball star Yao Ming on a billboard designed to raise awareness of wildlife preservation. The Chinese eight-time NBA all-star retired in 2011.

Why sharks matter

Explaining the crucial role that sharks play in the ecosystem, World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Global Shark Program Leader, Andy Cornish told CNBC, "What happens is if you remove those large predators, it destabilizes the ecosystem underneath. When you remove sharks, strange things happen. Some populations of fish underneath increase, but other populations further down actually decrease, in a way that's actually very difficult to predict."

Cornish said that the situation was made worse by climate change.

"The best thing we can do to conserve our oceans, before climate change really hits, is to have healthy ecosystems," he said. "We need to have those sharks as part of our ecosystems if we're going to have resilient oceans in the face of climate change."

Leading the way regionally in sustainable seafood consumption, Hilton Singapore was the first hotel and restaurant group in Asia to achieve the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) Chain of Custody Certifications.

"What it means is that any product with the MSC eco label, we guarantee that from your plate to the fishery where it was caught, things have been managed in a sustainable way, that there will be fish and seafood for future generations to come," Daniel Allamand, Hilton Worldwide's vice president of supply management in Asia Pacific, told CNBC.

The Hilton group banned shark's fin soup in all their food and beverage outlets in 2014.

Allamand said that the coming years would see more initiatives on sustainable seafood from the hospitality giant.

"[Our goals are] to ban all endangered species within all of our hotels worldwide ... Within six years, 25 percent of all seafood products within our hotels will be certified by either the MSC or ASC, and by that time, the remaining 75 percent will be sourced from organizations working towards MSC and ASC certifications," he said.

This kind of advocacy has born fruit in terms of creating public awareness of the issues around eating sharks' fins. A 2014 study by non-profit organization WildAid found that shark's fin sales in China dropped by up to 70 percent over the two years to 2014, while 85 percent of consumers surveyed said that they had stopped eating shark's fin soup.

In 2015 the University of Hong Kong released a report that showed 70 percent of Hong Kong residents had turned away bowls of shark's fin soup when offered, while 90 percent of respondents surveyed said that they think the Hong Kong government should ban the sale of wildlife products that involve killing endangered animals.

While response from the awareness campaigns has been encouraging, when it comes to the shark population, experts said that actual numbers were hard to pin down.

"It's very difficult in the sea, we have no idea how many sharks are actually left," Cornish cautioned. "What we can do is look at how much is coming out, how many are being caught by fishing. We know that the numbers are in the high tens of millions of sharks being caught each year."


A wholesale shark fin salesman on Hong Kong displays a fin in August 2006. China is the world's biggest consumer of the food product, which is commonly used to make shark's fin soup.
Laurent Fievet | APF | Getty Images
A wholesale shark fin salesman on Hong Kong displays a fin in August 2006. China is the world's biggest consumer of the food product, which is commonly used to make shark's fin soup.

Short-term mindset is a killer

Cornish said that a main speedbump was the "short-term mindset" trade players had.

"For example, in Hong Kong shark fin traders have shown no interest in the long-term sustainability of the trade," he said. "They basically say, 'Well I'm going to make as much money as I can today, and if it doesn't work out, there's no sharks left for me to sell, I'm just going to move on to something else'."

"You see that with traders, with fishing companies, even with individual fishermen who head out on their canoes, just catching what they eat that day. That short-term mentality is the real issue," Cornish added.

The other major challenge, he said, was to persuade governments to regulate the trade.

"The number one issue is that fisheries management is not a top priority for most governments. It's not just sharks which are being managed badly; tuna ... are seen as the cash cows of the seas," he said.

"Fisheries are often seen, even in developing countries, as an older, primary industry. So just getting governments to do the basics of fishery management is really the number one [challenge]. And it's really not that difficult, we know how to do it. It just requires guts to say to the fishermen - you're going have to catch a bit less in order for this to be sustainable," Cornish added.

The pressure is now on shipping and logistics companies to stop transporting shark's fins. To date, 16 global shipping companies have pledged to stop carrying fins, while a recent protest in Hong Kong earlier this month saw activists calling for U.S courier Fedex to follow suit.

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