Sta­tus sym­bol loses its NY sta­tus

New York is one of the big­gest mar­kets for shark fins out­side of Asia, but that will change to “New York was’’ on July 1 when a ban against the pos­ses­sion, sale and dis­tri­bu­tion of shark fins take ef­fect, AMY HE re­ports from New York.

China Daily (Canada) - - IN DEPTH -

WS­tock­ing up

A sales per­son at Po Wing Hung said that many people were look­ing to stock up.

“There was just this one woman who came and bought two big pack­ages of it,” said the sales per­son who de­clined to give his name. “Who said no­body is buy­ing?”

New York is one of the big­gest mar­kets for shark fins out­side of Asia, and it be­came the largest port of en­try for shark fins in the US af­ter Cal­i­for­nia en­acted its ban. It is also home to the largest US Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion that uses shark fin in soup.

The shark fin in­dus­try gen­er­ates about $400 mil­lion to $550 mil­lion a year, ac­cord­ing to the Pew En­vi­ron­ment Group, though like many other in­dus­try-re­lated fig­ures, they are only es­ti­mates. It’s dif­fi­cult to mon­i­tor shark-finning ac­tiv­ity, and many sta­tis­tics are anec­do­tal.

Some es­ti­mates show that 73 mil­lion sharks are killed yearly for their fins, and 80 to 90 per­cent of the global shark pop­u­la­tion has de­clined due to finning. Mean­while, the value of shark fins has in­creased as the Asian econ­omy grows, and par­tic­u­larly as China be­comes wealth­ier. Shark fins can cost from $30 to $800 per pound, and a bowl of shark fin soup can cost up­wards of $100 at some Chi­nese restaurants.

When the ban goes into ef­fect, New York restaurants will no longer be al­lowed to sell the dish, and restaurants that merely have it on their menus — even if they don’t serve it — can be fined, ac­cord­ing to the Hu­mane So­ci­ety In­ter­na­tional.

A re­cent China Daily check of 10 Chi­nese restaurants in Man­hat­tan’s Chi­na­town found only one still had shark fin soup on its menu, with work­ers at many of the restaurants say­ing that with the ban so close they had to change their menus.

Con­gee Restau­rant’s menu still listed it — $15 for a sin­gle serv­ing of shark fin soup with chicken and crab­meat; $68 for four serv­ings of a soup made with a higher grade fin. A worker said that with the ban fast ap­proach­ing, the menu also will be changed.

“There are still people who want the soup, but what are we go­ing to do? If they’re not go­ing to let you sell it, then you have to com­ply. The fines you get you can’t earn back from sell­ing the soup,” said the worker, who de­clined to give his name.

The ban was signed into law last July and gave mer­chants one year to phase out their stock. Be­yond the sales to in­di­vid­ual cus­tomers, some mer­chants are sell­ing what they have to buy­ers in other states that don’t have a ban, said Patrick Kwan, com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor at Chi­na­town Part­ner­ship, who was for­merly New York di­rec­tor at the Hu­mane So­ci­ety.

“The en­tire West Coast has banned shark hen Chi­nese get mar­ried, shark fin soup of­ten is on the ban­quet menu, tra­di­tion­ally paid for by the groom’s fam­ily. It’s such a sta­tus sym­bol that the say­ing goes that a bride mar­ry­ing into a fam­ily who can’t pro­vide shark fin soup is mar­ry­ing into a poor one.

But start­ing on July 1 that ban­quet ta­ble — or a ta­ble at any restau­rant — in New York that has shark fin soup on it will be vi­o­lat­ing the law that Gover­nor Andrew Cuomo signed, ban­ning the pos­ses­sion, sale and dis­tri­bu­tion of shark fins.

Vi­o­la­tors will be fined $100 per fin in pos­ses­sion and may face up to 15 days in jail as New York be­comes the eighth state to ban the trade of shark fin, join­ing Hawaii, Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon, Cal­i­for­nia, Mary­land, Delaware and Illi­nois.

As the July 1 date ap­proached, stores in Man­hat­tan’s Chi­na­town that sell other Chi­nese del­i­ca­cies such as swal­low’s nest and abalone, were rush­ing to get rid of their stock of shark fin. On the Po Wing Hung store­front on El­iz­a­beth Street signs in­di­cated that all shark fins were be­ing deeply dis­counted. Cus­tomers buy­ing more than half a pound of swal­low’s nest were get­ting a free pack­age of shark fin, read one sign.

Other spe­cialty stores like Yue Fung USA En­ter­prise were of­fer­ing sim­i­lar dis­counts, with many shark fin types sell­ing for 50 per­cent off. One type of fin orig­i­nally priced at $168 a pound was down to $128 a pound and that would drop to $100 a pound if a cus­tomer wanted more.

“Ev­ery­thing has to go, so we would be happy to give people a good price if they’re look­ing to buy,” said the sales­man, who de­clined to give his name. And ev­ery­thing — shark fins, that is — ap­peared to be go­ing. Sales people at mul­ti­ple Yue Fung USA En­ter­prise lo­ca­tions in Chi­na­town said their stores had lit­tle stock re­main­ing be­cause cus­tomers knew about the July 1 date. to sci­en­tists since sharks oc­cupy the top of the food chain and are known as a “key­stones” species, mean­ing that shark extinction would lead to the col­lapse of an ocean’s en­tire ecosys­tem. Sharks are apex preda­tors, keep­ing other prey species in check, eat­ing sick and old fish, gen­er­ally keep­ing ocean pop­u­la­tions healthy.

“When shark pop­u­la­tions de­crease, a rip­ple ef­fect can spread through­out the rest of the ecosys­tem,” said the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion on its web­site. The loss of a cer­tain type of shark can lead to the in­crease of other an­i­mals, which may de­plete the pop­u­la­tions of other species, hurt­ing bio­di­ver­sity and harm­ing hu­man fish­eries, the in­sti­tu­tion wrote.

It’s dif­fi­cult to re­vive shark pop­u­la­tions when they de­cline since it takes al­most 20 years for sharks to reach sex­ual ma­tu­rity. Once they do, their ges­ta­tion pe­ri­ods last up to two years, and un­like other fish, sharks give live birth to a hand­ful of young in­stead of a large num­ber of eggs.

“Some shark pop­u­la­tions have de­clined by as much as 90 per­cent and some shark fish­eries that col­lapsed in the first half of last century still have not re­cov­ered,” AWI wrote.

Though people are be­com­ing more aware of shark con­ser­va­tion ef­forts, dis­cus­sion and con­cern over the de­plet­ing shark pop­u­la­tion have not been as ram­pant as that for other en­dan­gered species, like the panda or hump­back whale.

And that is be­cause sharks have long had a bad pub­lic im­age as people killers. But sta­tis­tics show that be­tween 2006 and 2010 in the US, there were only 179 shark at­tacks in the en­tire coun­try, three of them fa­tal. Drown­ing fa­tal­i­ties oc­cur at a rate of 1 in 3.5 mil­lion in the US com­pared to the 0 in 264.1 mil­lion for shark at­tack fa­tal­i­ties, ac­cord­ing to the ocean con­ser­va­tion group Oceana.

“The real threat is hu­mans. For ev­ery hu­man killed by a shark, there are ap­prox­i­mately 25 mil­lion sharks killed by hu­mans,” the Wash­ing­ton-based group said on its web­site. Fin al­ter­na­tives

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and ac­tivists say sharks are worth much more alive than dead. Eco­tourism in­volv­ing sharks, where people pay to visit ar­eas with shark pop­u­la­tions or take part in div­ing ex­pe­di­tions with sharks, is worth an es­ti­mated $47.5 mil­lion world­wide, said the AWI. Shark-watch­ing and recre­ational div­ing are in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar, “cre­at­ing a strong in­cen­tive for lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties to pro­tect their shark pop­u­la­tions”, it said.

People in New York, like those in other states with a shark-fin ban, still have op­tions for shark-fin al­ter­na­tives. Man-made shark fin, of­ten called faux shark fin or ar­ti­fi­cial shark fin, is gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity. Faux shark fin can be made in a va­ri­ety of ways, with some com­pa­nies us­ing sea­weed or ver­mi­celli. Oth­ers, like chef Corey Lee of San Fran­cisco’s Benu Restau­rant makes his own ver­sion of shark fin soup by treat­ing broth with hy­dro­col­loids, hy­drophilic poly­mers that give liq­uids tex­ture.

Some an­tic­i­pate that ban­ning shark fin is go­ing to en­cour­age un­der­ground trade in New York, just like in Cal­i­for­nia, where en­force­ment of the ban has been dif­fi­cult, ac­cord­ing to the Wall Street Jour­nal.

“In Cal­i­for­nia, it was a very con­tro­ver­sial is­sue. Com­mu­nity groups sued over the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of it and we have seen the ma­jor­ity of un­der­ground trad­ing is hap­pen­ing in San Fran­cisco be­cause they just don’t agree with the ban,” AWI’s Ho said.

But depend­ing on the at­ti­tudes and stock re­main­ing in New York, things could vary, Ho said. When asked about where un­sold shark fin will go when the ban starts, one shop owner at a Chi­na­town store said “there are places [the fins] can go”, with­out giv­ing any de­tails.

Oth­ers like Kwan said that he doesn’t an­tic­i­pate there will be a lot of un­der­ground trad­ing, be­cause cook­ing shark fin at home is dif­fi­cult.

“It’s one of those things where you have to have spe­cial­ized train­ing, some­what — how to dry it and things like that. Be­ing that it’s an ex­pen­sive in­gre­di­ent, you don’t re­ally want to mess up. We’re not talk­ing about bak­ing a cake,” he said.

Now that it will soon be il­le­gal to trade it, there will be even less of an in­cen­tive to pur­sue it through other means, said Kwan.

“People use it dur­ing ban­quets and wed­dings be­cause they want to be able to — for lack of a bet­ter term — show off. So if it’s il­le­gal to do so and you can’t show off, what’s the point of it? Why go through the trou­ble of get­ting fined $100 for each fin and spend­ing 15 days in jail for a soup that doesn’t even de­pend on the fin for its taste? It’s not the soup that’s il­le­gal, it’s the fin. You can still make the soup.” Con­tact the writer at amyhe@chi­nadai­lyusa. com

PHO­TOS BY AMY HE / CHINA DAILY

Above: Shark fin on sale at a New York Chi­na­town su­per­mar­ket. Mar­kets and dried-good stores that still have shark fin are in a rush to de­plete their stock be­fore a July 1 ban on shark fins takes ef­fect. Be­low: Shark fin sale signs out­side a su­per­mar­ket. The yel­low signs say that cus­tomers who buy half a pound or more of swal­low’s nest will be given shark fin for free.

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