Awareness for the need to help sharks is spreading around the world. Even to China.
For thousands of years, shark fin soup has been a tradition in Chinese cuisine. The shark fins themselves are tasteless; but the soup signifies wealth and status. Shark fin soup was once only available to the most privileged few. But as more individuals in China have gained affluence, it has become increasingly available to the average person. [Even though a single serving can sell for as much as $300!] It is often served at large celebratory events, like weddings and banquets.
While cultural traditions are nice, this tradition has a detrimental impact on shark populations. Because shark fins can attain such a high price, sharks are routinely killed just for their fins. The rest of the body, worth much less, is often thrown back to sea. This practice results in the deaths of tens of thousands of sharks each year.
Now, not surprisingly, after decades of killing sharks, many shark populations are depleted. Some even threatened with extinction. Sharks simply cannot withstand high levels of fishing. Most shark species are not capable of reproducing until late in life. And, like us, they have long gestation periods and low reproductive rates. So, they cannot reproduce quickly enough to account for the losses from fishing.
But there is good news; last week, the New York Times reported that the demand for shark fin soup in China may be fading some. Some luxury hotel restaurants in China have been taking shark fin soup off their menus, in an effort to help protect sharks. Last July, the Chinese government announced a ban on serving shark fin soup at official banquets [though it could take up to 3 years to implement]. And in September, a major airline [Cathay Pacific Airlines] said it would no longer transport shark fins or other shark products to China.
Consumers are also starting to realize that eating shark fin soup is not as nutritious as they thought, and is hurting shark populations. Some high ranking Chinese men and women are vowing not to consume shark fin soup and not to serve it at their sponsored banquets.
There is still a long way to go. Many restaurants still serve shark fin soup and many consumers are still eating it. But we are slowly making progress. As more individuals and groups have joined in helping to raise awareness about the dire state of shark populations, we have seen more and more countries put laws in place to protect sharks from fishing. And hopefully, we will continue to see a drop in the popularity of shark fin soup. Less demand means fewer sharks killed, increasing our chances of rebuilding shark populations.
Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.