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Think fin, save sharks

ASIA is the world's biggest market for shark's fin - a costly delicacy and status symbol - and its appetite is growing. But sharks are being slaughtered. Zhang Qian reports.

A few strands of vermicelli-like yuchi (literally fish-wing or shark's fin) swimming in broth in a small blue-and-white porcelain bowl are a mouth-watering, highly prized and highly expensive delicacy.

Asia is the world's biggest market for shark's fin and the demand is growing, especially as people become wealthier.

This tasteless tidbit of cartilage is touted as a tonic, an aphrodisiac, a treatment to strengthen internal organs, retard aging and improve the complexion.

A bowl of top-grade shark's fin soup could cost 800 yuan (US$117) per person at a top restaurant.

The health benefits, however, are questioned by many people, and high-mercury levels tested in shark's fin in Hong Kong last year have raised other questions about its safety.

Sharks are slaughtered for their fins (top or dorsal most valuable, then the tail, then the pectoral fins) - they are hauled out of the water, their fins are hacked off and the bodies are dumped back in the ocean. This is known as finning.

An estimated 70 to 100 million sharks are slaughtered worldwide each year to satisfy gourmet palates, mostly in Asia.

Sharks are being decimated and the wanton killing of one of the ocean's largest predators is changing the environmental balance in the seas. Sharks themselves could face extinction.

Environmentalists worldwide have sounded the alarm and now the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium has joined the campaign with a new exhibition, "SOS Save Our Sharks."

Statistics complied by WildAid present a shocking picture: 89 percent of the world's hammer-head shark population has been depleted since 1986, 80 percent for thresher sharks, 79 percent for white sharks and 65 percent for tiger sharks.

WildAid is an international nonprofit environmental organization based in San Francisco. It has representatives in China, Canada, the UK and Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. Its mission is saving endangered wild species.

WildAid co-organized the exhibition with the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium.

"The consumption of shark's fins is the major threat to sharks and consumption in Asia is a big part of the problem," says Steven Trent, president of WildAid.

Yuchi (fish-wing) is considered as one of the four top Chinese delicacies, the others being bird's nest, sea cucumber and abalone.

Ingredients in shark's fin soup are dried slices of fin, the longer the strand the better. Although the cartilage itself is tasteless, it thickens soups without using cornstarch. Complicated recipes call for hours of preparing a delicious broth that may include abalone, scallops, crab, or chicken and ham.

Traditional Chinese medicine says that fins reinforce energy, improve circulation, clear phlegm, act as a diuretic, improve the appetite and nourish the skin.

However, TCM food therapy requires frequent and regular eating over a period of time. Just one bowl of shark's fin soup won't do anything for you.

Critics of shark slaughter question the extravagant health claims and argue that other natural ingredients can do the same thing, though they may not have the same mystique.

Eating shark's fin used to be a special custom for rich families in South China, but it is now popular around Asia, especially Southeast Asia. It is popular among overseas Chinese worldwide.

Shark's fin is so expensive that few ordinary people buy it for themselves, but many will order it in a restaurant to show their respect to an important guest.

It has become a status symbol.

"It is too expensive for a family dinner, but for an important customer or client, it is usually a must, otherwise the host might be considered cheap or mean-spirited," says George Lin, who does public relations for a trading company.

The world trade in shark's fins has nearly tripled from 4,900 tons in 1987 to 13,600 tons in 2004. And the increasing demand has led to cruel fishing methods, finning.

"As shark's meat is much cheaper than other fish and takes up a lot more room, most fishermen just cut off the fins and throw the shark back into the sea," says Julie Adams, managing director of Marine Dream, a Shanghai-based NGO promoting ocean protection.

"The sharks cannot swim without fins and usually sink to the bottom and die in two or three months," she says.

As fins only represent around 1 percent of a shark's weight, the number of sharks captured annually amounts to 1 to 2 million tons, based on the known number of fins traded. Only 400,000 tons of shark capture (the entire shark) are reported to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization each year. That means most of the other sharks are killed cruelly for their fins.

Sharks have been on the Earth for more than 500 million years and have evolved as a highly successful predator that plays an important role in the ocean's eco-chain. Along with other marine life, it helps keep a balance in the number of sea creatures. A sharp decrease in the number of sharks, therefore, will result in an increasing number of middle-sized and small fish and an unbalanced marine eco-system.

Sharks reproduce slowly. Gestation usually takes 10-12 months, longer for some species and females cannot reproduced again for a year. It usually takes 25 years for a shark to mature, says Jiang Feng, an employee of the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium.

"It will be difficult for the species to survive if the massacre continues," Jiang says.

In addition, the health value of shark's fin is questioned by modern research. A high proportion of mercury is found in shark's fins, according to research in Bangkok and Hong Kong. Mercury decreases male fertility and it can damage the central nervous system and kidneys.

Industrial waste water discharged into the ocean over the years has also resulted in high levels of pollution in many fish, and that extends to their fins.

With a life span of around 70 years, sharks are exposed to polluting elements much longer than other fish. As a top consumer in the food chain, sharks consume fish that already are polluted.

Overfishing is a worldwide problem involving many species, including different kinds of tuna, cod and snappers.

"Many people don't realize their eating preferences are causing this problem," says Adams from Marine Dream.

According to a 16-city survey by WildAid and the China Wildlife Conservation Association, about three-quarters of the people interviewed don't know the soup is actually made of sharks' fins and that eating the soup endangers sharks and the wildlife balance in the ocean. Marine Dream is preparing a sustainable menu program - to be launched in September - in which some high-end restaurants in Shanghai will offer fish that are not endangered - this covers tuna, for example.

A green check mark indicates sustainable menu choices. A brochure will explain the difference between sustainable and non-sustainable choices. The waiter or waitress will also explain.

"Of course we cannot urge the restaurant to stop selling cuisine like shark's fin, but we suggest they provide other choices and explain the difference to customers before they order," says Adams.

"I believe that most people would make a wise choice if they knew that the little choice they made in ordering would make a big change for the environment," she says.

So far, a number of restaurants are interested and negotiations are underway with a major international retailer about importing sustainable fish, says Adams.

"SOS Save Our Sharks" exhibition

Date: through September 30, 9am-9pm

Address: 158 Yincheng Rd N.

Tel: 5877-9988 You can make a green difference

Joyce Zhang

PROTECTING the environment isn't difficult. You don't need to be a scientist or engineer to have an effect. You can do simple things and make sustainable choices. You can help pick up litter from the beach, select a sustainable menu (food that isn't endangered or doesn't come from overfishing), for example.

An online spelling game called "Free Trees" lets you help "plant" a tree and fight deforestation in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Each correct answer amounts to one point; when 10,000 points are accumulated, a tree will be planted by Roots and Shoots.

The game is sponsored by Marine Dream (, a Shanghai-based non-governmental organization founded in 2007.

"Many people are now aware of environmental protection," says Julie Adams, founder and managing director of Marine Dream. "Yet most still don't know the real situation and how they can help make a change. All they need is some instruction and opportunity to participate."

The "Free Trees" game ( is in both English and Chinese.

The Chinese game involves multiple choices for the correct pinyin for each Chinese character. The English version involves choosing the correct English word for a Chinese character. There are 10 levels of difficulty.

The advertising income of the Website will finance tree planting. Sponsors are being sought.

"Earning all those 10,000 points may seem difficult for one person; but if 2,000 people participate, all you need are just five correct answers," says Adams.

The idea for the game came from the "free rice" game on where players test their English-language skills and at the same time pay for rice to feed the hungry.

Though "Free Trees" was first a learning game for primary school students, Marine Dream thought it would be good way for expats to learn Chinese and Chinese to learn English while protecting the environment. The game will be introduced in some primary and middle schools and universities in September.

About 500 students took part in a Marine Dream beach cleanup in Nanhui area in May. Within two hours a truck was filled with rubbish collected by students. Packages of instant noddles, lunch boxes, plastic bags and slippers top the list of garbage.

All the rubbish pollutes the environment and if it's eaten it can injure animals, says Adams. Turtles can die from eating plastic bags swept out to sea. Scalloped hammerhead sharks The hammerhead sharks are named for the unusual and distinctive structure of their heads, which are flattened and laterally extended into a "hammer" shape.

They are found worldwide in warmer waters along coastlines and continental shelves. The number has decreased sharply in population over the past 40 years. It was included on the 2008 Red List of threatened species by International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Big-eye thresher

The big-eye thresher is a species of thresher shark found in temperate and tropical oceans worldwide. Its common name comes from its enormous eyes, which are placed in keyhole-shaped sockets that allow them to be rotated upward.

Its skin, fins and liver oil are valued. The World Conservation Union has assessed this species as Vulnerable.

Common thresher shark

The shark is the largest of the thresher species and is usually found in all temperate and tropical oceans of the world.

Other than for its meat, the sharks are hunted for their liver oil, skin (for leather), and their fins, for use in shark's fin soup. It is also on the list of vulnerable to extinction by the World Conservation Union.

Shortfin mako shark

The shortfin mako shark is a large shark of the Lamnidae family. It has short pectoral fins and a crescent-shaped caudal (tail) fin.

The shortfin mako is found in offshore temperate and tropical seas worldwide, normally far from land though occasionally closer to shore. It is also on the list of vulnerable to extinction by the World Conservation Union.


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