Off the Menu:Hong Kong Gov’t Bans Shark’s FinPosted: September 17, 2013
Hong Kong may be the capital of the world’s shark’s fin trade, but as environmentalists step up their campaign against the delicacy, even this city’s government has declared it off-limits.
Last year, China’s government announced it would stop serving shark’s fin soup at official banquets, a move that was heralded by green groups around the world, though it will likely take years to come into effect. Now, Hong Kong is following suit, banning the dish at official events and requesting civil servants to refrain from eating it at other functions, along with other endangered species such as bluefin tuna and black moss. The move comes as international companies from luxury Shangri-La hotel chain to Cathay Pacific Airways have declared they will refuse to serve or carry most shark’s fin.
Altogether, said Allen To of the World Wildlife Foundation, more than 150 corporations have pledged not to serve the dish—a gelatinous, stringy soup that’s believed to have curative properties—at their own banquets. “But it’s still very common at wedding banquets,” said Mr. To, noting that at local restaurants, it can be more expensive for couples to swap out shark’s fin soup for other luxury dishes such as abalone or bird’s nest soup.
Ten years ago, Hong Kong imported more than 12,000 tons of shark’s fin, which collectively was dried, salted or preserved in brine. Last year, those figures dipped to just one-third of that amount, according to official trade data.
Much of Hong Kong’s shark fins are re-exported throughout Asia, which consumes 95% of the world’s shark fins, according to nonprofit WildAid. Activists praised Hong Kong’s move on Monday, saying the trade results in the deaths of millions of sharks a year.
Among civil servants in Hong Kong, reactions to the announcement were more mixed. So Ping-chi, the immediate past chairman of the Senior Government Officers Association, said the request that civil servants refrain from eating the dish during non-government functions is excessive.
“Civil servants have their own lives,” he said. “I understand that they’re concerned it will give the public a very bad image, to have a civil servant eating expensive food,” he noted, as shark’s fin can cost hundreds of dollars per pound in Hong Kong. “But I don’t think normal civil servants can afford to eat it anyway,” he said, adding that most government workers largely dine on imitation shark’s fin soup made of gelatin.
Beyond the latest announcement, other headwinds for local shark’s fin traders include a crackdown on corruption across the border in mainland China, which has dented appetite for everything from shark fins to expensive mooncakes and Moutai alcohol.
Ng Goon Lau, who first set up his own trading company to sell shark’s fins in 1984, is one Hong Kong businessman who has seen the fortunes of the industry change. In the 1980s, he said, he was selling close to 1 ½ tons of shark’s fin per year. But by 2012, he said, his business sank to just one-fifth of a ton per year—thanks to consumer boycotts, he said—so he decided to quit the business altogether.
Still, he said he remains confident the market will one day bounce back. “To Chinese officials, the choice of food is based on the price: the more expensive, the more they are eager to eat,” he said, adding that he expects to re-enter the market if and when the backlash against the dish falters.
“I don’t give up and I am patiently waiting for the situation to change,” he said.
– Te-Ping Chen. Follow her on Twitter @tepingchen.