Written by Stan Shea
Shark fin soup. Just 20 years ago, the dish was a staple in all celebration banquets, especially weddings, where it was considered an essential part of festivities in Hong Kong. Yet, after years of local action and education on the topic, most major hotel chains now offer shark fin alternatives or even fin-free banquet menus. Some hotels provide the soup only upon request (removing it from regular menus) and others have stopped serving it entirely. As someone who was born and raised here, I can testify that this change would have been unimaginable just 20 years ago.
This movement in the high-end catering sector began in 2009. By 2011, eight high-end hotels had either removed shark fin from their menus completely or offered the dish only upon request. Thereafter, changes in the sector quickly gathered speed and by 2013, a total of 35 hotels were on board. Today, even more have joined and some have widened their scope to explore sustainable seafood option(s).
Following the progress, in 2013 the Hong Kong government responded to public pressure and became the first government in Asia to remove shark fin soup (as well as some other environmentally-controversial dishes) from official banquets.
As the popularity of shark conservation has gained momentum in Hong Kong, the sentiments attached to the traditional Chinese soup have changed significantly. Growing interest in shark protection is reflected in increased media coverage and in the results of two sociological surveys commissioned by BLOOM Association Hong Kong and conducted by the Social Sciences Research Centre of The University of Hong Kong. The survey showed that more than 70% of Hong Kong residents reduced or stopped consuming shark fin soup between 2009 and 2014.
Internationally, shark species threatened by commercial demand for their fins are gaining attention in CITES, an international agreement among governments to regulate the trade in endangered plant and animal species with commitment from at least 183 countries and territories.
Recent achievements signal now is the time to press for change in local legislation and to step-up research to ensure further protection for shark species and other wildlife species. Hong Kong is a major wildlife trafficking hub, with seizures over the past five years reaching HK$117 million through October 2015; the global trade in illegal flora and fauna is valued at HK$54-178 billion (US$7-23 billion).
Hong Kong’s current legislation governing the trade and sale in sharks and other endangered species has not been updated in two decades. The penalties for wildlife crimes are woefully low when compared to other developed countries. Australia, for example, enforces a maximum prison sentence of 10 years, whereas Hong Kong’s maximum penalty is two years.
In research, updates are also long overdue as we continue to refer to market studies dating back as far as 2006, when we began our shark protection work. Next to nothing is known about the local shark fin retail and wholesale industry, and we are only beginning to grasp the lack of traceability in not only the shark fin trade, but also the trade in seafood more broadly and other endangered wildlife.
Several projects are currently underway to address specific gaps in legislation and research. We are looking forward to the results of a market survey in collaboration with NGOs and academics that will reveal the shark species sold as shark fin in the local retail market.
We also fully support current proposed government legislation to ban domestic sales and trade in most ivory and raise illegal wildlife trade penalties. Finally, looking forward we will be pushing to see wildlife crime included under Hong Kong’s Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance to ensure such crimes are given adequate attention in criminal investigations in the future.
Much more work awaits us if we are to see greater traceability, monitoring and enforcement in the shark fin and wildlife trades. These issues must continue to be a priority for Hong Kong.