TAIPEI/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singaporean groom Han Songguang took his campaign to stop consumption of one of Asia’s top delicacies to a new level when he placed postcards of a dead shark on each guest’s seat at his own wedding banquet.
Instead of shark’s fin soup, a must at many ethnic Chinese wedding banquets, Han offered his guests lobster soup.
“If we can do our part to save ‘X’ number of sharks ... why not?” said Han, a geography teacher, who married a diving enthusiast in December.
Wildlife conservationists, who have long railed against the popularity of shark fin soup, are finally seeing signs that consumption is dropping as young Asians become aware of the environmental impact of this much prized dish.
Added to that is the global financial crisis, which is causing Asians to tighten their belts and either cut down on visits to restaurants or order more frugally from menus.
A symbol of wealth and status in Chinese culture, shark fin soup has long been an essential part of banquet celebrations for weddings and to welcome in the Lunar New Year.
Until recently, only the rich could afford the soup. But demand has soared in recent years, hand-in-hand with rising affluence in East Asia.
The quantity of shark fins demanded, around 800,000 metric tonnes a year, has caused a sharp decline in shark numbers. About 20 percent of all shark species are now endangered.
Wildlife conservationists also decry the killing of sharks through “finning,” whereby the fins are cut off and the live shark is tossed back into the sea. Unable to swim properly, the shark suffocates or is killed by predators.
“Today we have incredible access to information. It has become much harder to say ‘I didn’t know’,” said Glenn Sant, marine program leader of the British wildlife group TRAFFIC.
He urged young Asians to take a stand and say: “‘It shouldn’t be an insult not to put shark fin on our wedding menu.’”
Despite efforts to ban “finning,” environmentalists say it is still carried out across the region as fishermen want the valuable fin but don’t want to store the rest of the shark as its flesh fetches low prices at fish markets.
As young Asians such as Han take a stand against shark fin soup, environmentalists hope for a long-term drop in consumption. Still there is a robust market of older consumers who demand the soup at auspicious events.
“Students and people in their 20s wouldn’t go to a shark eatery, and $15 for a dish is no cheap price,” said Joyce Wu, program officer with TRAFFIC.
Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and China, including Hong Kong, are all major shark fin consumers, according to a TRAFFIC report. Trade in shark products was worth $310 million in 2005, with fins 40 percent of the total, the report says.
Those numbers are coming down as younger consumers eschew the delicacy of their parents.
Worldwide shark consumption dropped from a peak of 897,000 metric tonnes in 2003 to 758,000 in 2006, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Fins make up an increasingly small percentage of the total, TRAFFIC says.
Indonesia’s overall 2006 haul of 98,250 metric tonnes compares to a 2003 peak of 117,559 metric tonnes, while Taiwan’s 40,000 to 45,000 metric tonnes of shark caught per year is down from around 70,000 annually in the early 1990s.
Hong Kong shark fin hauls have held steady at about 10,000 metric tonnes per year since 2004, the region’s government says.
“They live a long time. They have a low reproductive rate. In other words they produce just a few young every year or every few years,” said Yvonne Sadovy, a biology professor at the University of Hong Kong. “So you just can’t take a lot.”
Tastes have changed along with awareness for young Asians.
Shang-kuan Liang-chi, a National Taiwan University student who has tried the crunchy jelly-like dish twice at formal events, prefers other food and avoids a shark fin restaurant near campus. “University students never go in there,” he said.
Even chefs are hoping to turn the tide. At Singapore’s Annual Chefs’ Association dinner, shark fin traditionally served at the occasion was taken off the menu.
“It is much harder to stop serving shark’s fin in our restaurants as the consumers still demand it. However, in our personal capacity, we can make a stand,” said Otto Weibel, a food manager at one of Singapore’s top hotels.
Global entertainment giant Disney bowed to pressure from animal rights activists and took the delicacy off its menu when it opened Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005.
Some Asian fishery authorities have banned “finning” and monitor boats for illegal catches of endangered species.
“We care a lot about the problems that environmental groups have raised,” said Chen Tain-shou, Taiwan Fisheries Agency deputy director-general.
Authorities in south China recently rescued a nurse shark from a tank after learning that it was to be slaughtered and its fins turned into soup for a 70-person banquet.
Shark fin sellers say their sales have also been tested by the economy. With Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong in recession, the restaurant business is flagging. Older consumers would buy more in better times, they say.
“If people are eating it, it’s a major event,” said Shen Lee-ching, a Taipei vendor of 30 years who sells dried fins by the bag for about $90 apiece. Some bags of dried, chopped fin have sat for years on her shelves.
In south China’s hub city Guangzhou, the 1,200 dried seafood stores have seen shark fin prices fall by about 40 percent since the financial crisis began, said Wu Huihan, an official from the city’s dried seafood association.
“People are keeping their money to spend on necessities, things that fill their stomach,” said Singapore fin seller Jeff Poon.
Additional reporting by James Pomfret in Hong Kong; editing by Doug Young and Megan Goldin