“There’s a shark in my soup”

Chinese sports icon tries to persuade compatriots to ditch shark fin broths

“There’s a shark in my soup”

His basketball team may call the Shanghai Sharks, but Yao Ming is not a fan of shark’s fin soup.

Last week, the recently retired basketball star teamed up with British magnate Sir Richard Branson, the founder of the airline Virgin Atlantic, to launch a campaign in Shanghai pressing Chinese diners to stop eating shark’s fin.

“When demand happens, buying happens and the killing happens,” said Yao, who stopped eating shark’s fin in 2006.

But even with his star power, Yao is going to have a hard time changing the Chinese taste for shark’s fin. While most people outside of Asia find shark’s fin popularity baffling (celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay said it was “tasteless”) the delicacy is seen as displaying wealth and prestige in China and across the Chinese disapora overseas. Shark fin’s soup, which can cost up to $80 a bowl, is a must-have at plenty of wedding banquets and corporate dinners.

About 95% of shark’s fin is consumed in China, where rising affluence has spurred demand, according to WildAid, a conservation group that sponsored the event in Shanghai last week.

To cater to demand, more than 70 million sharks are slaughtered every year, a move that now endangers some species, says Xinmin Evening News.

“Few people know the importance of sharks in maintaining the ecological balance,” says Yao. “Nor do they realise the cruelty of the finning process.”

After their fins are sliced off, sharks are usually thrown back into the ocean where they are left to die. That’s because while a pound of shark’s fin can go for up to $700, the remaining shark meat isn’t particularly valuable, and it takes up freezer space on fishing boats.

Demand is devastating shark populations, which cannot withstand intensive fishing in the same way as more fecund marine species. Sharks have few offspring and often do not reproduce until they are older than 10 years old. Worse, they give birth to just a handful of young (big tuna, on the other hand, release millions of eggs when they spawn).

The presence of the once-common hammerhead in large parts of the western Atlantic, for example, has decreased by up to 89% over the last 25 years, says the New York Times.

Across the Pacific, California passed a bill this month that effectively prohibits the sale, trade and possession of shark’s fin in the state. Similar laws are already in place in Hawaii, Washington and Oregon.

Awareness is also rising among the younger generation of Chinese diners. Many are now choosing to opt out of shark fin servings at banquets, and advocates say sales have been reduced by about one-third in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan in recent years. Activists hope that these richer, more mature Chinese societies offer hope that the mainland will follow their culinary lead.

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