China’s spectacular economic expansion since the late 1970s has lifted millions out of poverty, propelling the country to become a major player in global economy. But the Chinese’ newfound prosperity is bad news for sharks – as more and more Chinese are now able to afford shark fin soup, a delicacy of their cuisine, sharks may be facing extinction.
Newly wealthy Chinese have fueled an explosion in demand for luxury goods, and aside from high-end cars, clothing and accessories, the dinner table is also an opportunity to show off their cash, according to the Atlantic. Shark fin soup, more than any other, has the power to confer status upon the host.
As a result, hundreds of millions of shark fins have been consumed for more than a decade in the soup, which can cost up to $100 per bowl. China’s consumption of pigs, chicken and cattle may have major environmental repercussions, but its consumption of shark fins is different, since sharks cannot be farmed economically, and have a much longer reproductive cycle.
WildAid, a U.S.-based conservation organization, estimated that up to 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins. As a result of years of harvesting, one third of the nearly 500 shark species are now facing extinction.
Brutally, most sharks are killed by “finning” – fins of the captured sharks are hacked off, and the animal is thrown back into the sea to either drown, or bleed to death. Afterward, the fins are transported by ship or plane to the main hub of global fin trade, Hong Kong, according to the Atlantic.
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Thanks to efforts from Western conservation groups like WildAid, and public luminaries like former NBA basketball player Yao Ming, however, shark fin harvesting is on the decline. After years of booming business serving locals, mainland Chinese and overseas Chinese, shark fin dealers in Hong Kong have been hit by a drastic market downturn – estimates for 2012 from the government showed that the market shrank by 50 to 70 percent. Roughly one-third of Hong Kong’s shark fin shops have closed down in recent years due to pressure from environmentalists, said Ho Siu-chai, chairman of the Hong Kong Shark Fin Trade Merchants Association.
The Peninsula Hotels and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, both prominent luxury hotel groups in Asia, have removed shark fin soup from their menus. Cathay Pacific, Air New Zealand, Korean Air, Fiji Airways and other airlines have also banned shark fins from their planes.
Governments in the U.S. are also getting involved in the cause. A few weeks ago, New York banned the possession or sale of fins from any shark beginning next summer, joining California, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Delaware and Maryland. In June, Brunei, the tiny sultanate on the north coast of Borneo, became the first Asian country to enact a nationwide ban on the trade, according to the Atlantic.