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Shark fin soup sales plunge in China

Austerity, ecological awareness and fishy safety record among the reasons for the delicacy's decline.

Last updated: 10 Apr 2014 10:54
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Diners often describe the taste and texture of shark fin as similar to rice noodles [Reuters]

Once all but required at official banquets and government receptions, shark fin soup is now conspicuously absent at tables across China, a high-profile casualty of the new leadership's austerity drive. 

The ban on shark fin at state functions has cut deep into the market for this traditional but controversial delicacy, and given a major boost to a small but growing effort to take shark fin off the menu at restaurants across the country. 

China's State Council first called for a ban on serving shark fin at official government functions in July 2012, setting out a three-year timeline for the prohibition to take effect.

The decision came in response to a push by lawmakers in the National People's Congress, who cited the environmental impact of shark finning. In contrast, the State Council ruling emphasised the need to trim back the cost of unnecessarily sumptuous banquets.

Critics labelled the move an empty gesture, questioning the need for a full three years before the ban could be completely implemented, and calling for more substantial efforts to fight government waste.

In December 2013, as China embarked on a wide-ranging crackdown on official privilege and corruption under new President Xi Jinping, the promised shark fin ban was rushed into effect.

But even before the ban, the new administration's hard line on official extravagance had already made a significant impact. In February last year, three months after Xi Jinping was installed as Communist Party leader, the Ministry of Commerce proudly reported a 70 percent drop in all sales of shark fin in Beijing hotels and restaurants during the two-week Chinese New Year holiday, along with a 40 percent decrease for other traditional delicacies such as bird's nest and abalone.

A confusing tradition

In spite of such promising figures, challenges remain in the push to eliminate a deeply engrained and long-standing tradition, albeit one that remains mysterious and even confusing to many Chinese diners themselves. 

For centuries, shark fin soup has been a delicacy reserved for the rich and powerful, served at banquets as a sign of affluence and a mark of prestige. Soups often feature elaborate sauces and broths, with the fin itself often described by diners as largely flavourless, similar in taste and texture to rice noodles. 

China losing appetite for shark fin delicacy

"I ate shark fin soup once at a wedding," recalled Liu Haiping, a professor from Shandong province. "Everyone at the table asked one another, 'Why is a thing like this so expensive when it doesn't taste like anything?' Then, a colleague replied, 'Real shark fin is so rare and so expensive, there must be some reason for it. So we might as well eat it anyway!'"

While the government ban has served the biggest blow to the popularity of shark fin soup, several other factors have also led more and more diners to lose their appetite for the delicacy. In recent years, both Chinese and international conservation groups have launched a series of public awareness campaigns highlighting the plight of endangered shark species, many of which are hunted solely for their fins. 

An estimated 73 million sharks are killed each year to provide fins for diners across Asia, according to Wild Aid, one of the most prominent groups opposing the practice in China.

Since 2006, Wild Aid has spread its message through TV ads and billboards featuring Chinese celebrities such as basketball player Yao Ming. The group's slogan "When the selling stops, the killing stops too" has been adopted by a wide range of anti-shark fin activists.

Food safety

Shark fin's reputation has also been sullied by food safety scandals. In January 2013, China Central Television aired a hidden camera expose of fake shark fin being served in restaurants across the country.

In the following months, local investigative reports uncovered markets and eateries selling "shark fin" made from materials ranging from gelatin to mung beans, while laboratory tests found that many actual shark fins contained dangerously high levels of mercury and other heavy metals.

All this negative press has meant bad news for those who make their living selling shark fin, who find themselves having to adjust to a swiftly changing market. At Beijing's Yupin Shark Fin Emporium, fins cut from the side of the shark sell for 1,400 yuan per kilo ($230), while the trademark dorsal fin, bought mainly by luxury hotels, sells for 5,200 yuan ($840). 

The store has been in business for just over three years, but only a few months after opening his doors, owner Chen Zhibin began to feel the impact of the shrinking shark fin market. "The amount that we're selling now is only half as much as when we started," he said.

[Chinese] are coming to realise the impact that shark fishing has on the ecological balance in the oceans, and so they are slowly eating less and less.

- Yang, vendor at Beijing's Jingshen Seafood Market

Other markets have been hit even harder. In Guangzhou, the centre of China's shark fin trade, vendors told a local newspaper in January that sales had declined by as much as 80 percent from the previous year, while prices had dropped by nearly 40 percent. 

Shark fin sellers see little hope for a rebound, and expect that environmental concerns will continue to shrink the market. "Chinese people's understanding of the environment is growing," noted one vendor surnamed Yang in Beijing's Jingshen Seafood Market. "They are coming to realise the impact that shark fishing has on the ecological balance in the oceans, and so they are slowly eating less and less." 

While shark fins are given pride of place on her shelves, Yang's business now depends on the sale of dozens of other dried seafood products, particularly sea cucumber, another traditional but more affordable delicacy.

As diners lose their taste for shark fin, China's culinary landscape has begun to shift as well. In January 2012, the restaurant review site Dianping.com featured a list of Shanghai's top ten restaurants for shark fin. Within two years, three of the restaurants listed had gone out of business. 

Off the menu

While shark fin is still available at a majority of luxury hotels and restaurants, the number of establishments choosing not to serve the controversial dish is slowly beginning to rise. In 2011, a survey by Chinese environmental group Green Beagle found that out of 131 Beijing hotels designated as environmentally conscious "green hotels", all but one served shark fin soup. The following year, 11 more removed shark fin from their menus. 

Last year, a similar survey by the Nature University found nearly 25 percent of high-end restaurants in Beijing no longer served shark fin, compared with 24 percent in Shanghai and 22 percent in the southern coastal city of Shenzhen. 

But even if a majority of Chinese are persuaded to give up shark fin, it is unlikely to spell the complete end of a tradition that has largely been the preserve of an exclusive elite.

As one Shandong distributor boasted to reporters, "[Our business] is fixed on one percent of the population. Their spending alone can support this product of ours."

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Al Jazeera
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