Shark-fin consumption falls amongst rich – but what about the rest?

Shark-fin consumption dropped after the government banned it from official functions. But might the resulting fall in price make it accessible to ordinary diners?

The consumption of shark-fin at high-end hotels fell significantly after the government banned the serving of the delicacy at official banquets.

Shark-fin soup has always been a luxury dish in China. But when consumption dropped, so did the price: the food of the rich and powerful became affordable for ordinary people. Environmentalists are worried that consumption may become more widespread as a result.

In December 2013, China issued new rules on hospitality for Party and government bodies. The ban was clear: “working meals should consist of common dishes, and luxury foods such as shark-fin and bird’s nest or dishes made from endangered species must not be provided.”

At the 2nd China Zero Shark-fin Forum, chinadialogue learned that in late 2013 Nature University carried out a survey of shark-fin consumption at top hotels in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. 43% of hotels asked were aware of the new rules and were not serving shark-fin at official banquets. Many officials are now too scared to order shark-fin.

But the government ban applies only to official meals, not private consumption. There is a big market for shark fin in China. 

Zhu Zhengguang of the State Fisheries Administration found on a recent visit to Guangzhou that the shark-fin trade was much less profitable than previously: prices had plummeted to 150 to 250 yuan a kilogram, less than a quarter of the original price. He learned there were 1,163 stalls selling the delicacy at Guangzhou’s four markets.

Wang Yamin, a shark expert from Shandong University’s Marine College, explained that illegal catching and trading are the main threat sharks face. Weak law enforcement means hunting of whales and sharks by Chinese fishermen has become a major problem, and the fishery authorities rarely punish those responsible. One Chinese fisherman was fined only 20,000 yuan and had 200,000 yuan of illegal earnings confiscated. The traders that knowingly buy illegally-caught shark go unpunished.

Zhu questions claims that Chinese shark-fin consumption is leading to extinction. If the Chinese stopped eating shark-fin, would the sharks be safe? He points out that sharks have a range of uses – in Leqing in Zhejiang there are over 20 shark-processors making shark meat and skin into products for overseas markets. Some are exported to Sri Lanka, while chondroitin and sharkskin bags are sent to the EU and US.

Wang Xue of the Zero Shark-fin campaign said that 24% of high-end restaurants surveyed in 2013 had banned the sale of shark-fin, an increase on the previous year. She added that the official ban provided a model to follow  – she expects the number of restaurants selling shark-fin to fall again next year.

Chinese New Year, the most important of China’s festivals, will soon arrive. This is a time for eating well, so shark-fin consumption may rise. Environmental groups are campaigning for Chinese people to boycott shark consumption both at Chinese New Year and for the rest of 2014, and to refuse to buy any shark products.