Un­fin­ished Busi­ness

Asian Geographic - - Cover Story - Text Hast­ings Forman

fin – and shark meat – is widely con­sumed in Asia. Shark fin soup is a notable Chi­nese and Viet­namese del­i­cacy: Such is the pres­tige as­so­ci­ated with the cui­sine that it is tra­di­tion­ally served at wed­ding ban­quets. At a restau­rant, a sin­gle bowl can set you back USD100.

But over the course of the last two decades – with the help of big names such as Jackie Chan and Yao Ming, as well as ho­tel groups, restau­rants and air­lines – peo­ple all over the con­ti­nent, par­tic­u­larly the youth, are turn­ing their backs on shark fin in the name en­vi­ron­men­tal con­scious­ness. China, a large con­sumer, has notably banned the dish at state func­tions.

A 2016 poll by WWF Sin­ga­pore found that over three-quar­ters of Sin­ga­pore­ans want gov­ern­ment pol­icy to counter the con­sump­tion of shark fin. Sim­i­larly, a 2014 re­port by Wil­daid, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that works to re­duce de­mands for wildlife prod­ucts, sur­veyed Chi­nese con­sumers on­line and found that 85 per­cent of


par­tic­i­pants had given up shark fin within the pre­vi­ous three years.

This sig­nals a grad­ual cul­tural shift away from the tra­di­tional pop­u­lar­ity and ac­cept­abil­ity of con­sum­ing shark fin soup – and the sta­tis­tics speak vol­umes. A 2013 re­port pub­lished in Marinepol­icy es­ti­mated that 100 mil­lion sharks are killed ev­ery year, al­though the fig­ure could be any­where be­tween 63 mil­lion and 273 mil­lion. The pri­mary cause be­hind these shock­ing num­bers? Over­fish­ing for fins and meat. “Pretty much ev­ery coun­try in the world has banned shark finning, de­fined as the act of catch­ing the an­i­mal, hack­ing off the fins, and dis­card­ing the body (many times while it is still alive) at sea,” says Ran­dall Arauz, pol­icy ad­vi­sor of the shark con­ser­va­tion group, Fins At­tached.

Fish­er­men can only dock with sharks that have their fins at­tached – to then be pro­cessed on land. But, this is lit­tle more than a de­fence against a bar­baric prac­tice. Arauz states that “in spite of the good in­ten­tion, this reg­u­la­tion has done noth­ing at all to ad­dress over­fish­ing… The re­quire­ment to sim­ply land all the sharks caught is hardly a man­age­ment pol­icy, and it has no ef­fect on pop­u­la­tion re­build­ing”. The dan­ger of the shark finning in­dus­try is that of un­sus­tain­able fish­ing, threat­en­ing the ex­is­tence of dozens of shark species and dras­ti­cally re­duc­ing the over­all pop­u­la­tion. “Sharks need a dras­tic re­duc­tion of fish­eries-in­duced mor­tal­ity,” af­firms Arauz.

A 2016 poll by WWF Sin­ga­pore found that over three-quar­ters of Sin­ga­pore­ans want gov­ern­ment pol­icy to counter the con­sump­tion of shark fin

But can coun­tries counter the over­fish­ing of sharks? Many na­tions have im­ple­mented restric­tions on the trade of cer­tain en­dan­gered shark species un­der the Con­ven­tion on the In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) – if only par­tially. Oth­ers have taken fur­ther steps, ban­ning shark fish­ing it­self within their ter­ri­to­rial waters. In­done­sia has done so within Raja Am­pat since 2010, and Palau has had a ban since 2009.

How­ever, there can be a dis­con­nect be­tween poli­cies that a na­tion adopts and their prac­ti­cal im­ple­men­ta­tion. Paul Friese, founder of Bali Sharks Res­cue Cen­tre, notes that In­done­sia – the top “shark catcher” in the world ac­cord­ing to a 2011 anal­y­sis by TRAF­FIC and the Pew En­vi­ron­ment Group (PEG) – have “poli­cies [that] don’t fil­ter down to the fish­ing vil­lages”. Friese adds: “Fish­er­men don’t read news­pa­pers, have Facebook or smart phones, for the most part.” The fact that many peo­ple are un­aware of the rules means that “the dis­con­nect from the pol­icy mak­ers to the fish­er­man is preva­lent”.

Ed­u­ca­tion on poli­cies is an un­re­solved is­sue within South­east Asian fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties. Yet Friese says that there are de­ter­rents in place,

notably for larger com­pa­nies who ac­quire the ma­jor­ity of catches: “If com­mer­cial fish­eries are caught, they get fines and penal­ties.”

In ad­dress­ing these restric­tions, Liz Ward-sing from Shark Guardian, a marine con­ser­va­tion char­ity that con­ducts re­search projects, says: “We do not have data to show how shark pop­u­la­tions have been af­fected by these bans [in re­la­tion to Asia and the rest of the world]. But we know that bans have had a pos­i­tive ef­fect long-term [on shark pop­u­la­tions] in places like Palau.”

But Palau and Raja Am­pat are just notable ex­cep­tions. It is very un­likely that more na­tions will im­ple­ment full or tem­po­rary bans given fea­si­bil­ity is­sues – and money: There is still a high de­mand for shark fin, and count­less busi­nesses are in­vested in the in­dus­try, which gen­er­ates sig­nif­i­cant rev­enue.


In a sim­ple di­chotomy, there are na­tions that source the sharks, and na­tions that trade them. Re­gard­ing the for­mer, na­tional ef­forts to man­age and reg­u­late shark fish­eries have re­ally missed the mark – to such an ex­tent, in fact, that they have led to the re­sound­ing fail­ure of the plan for shark con­ser­va­tion by the UN Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion (FAO), ap­proved in 2001.

The TRAF­FIC and PEG anal­y­sis from 2011 found that out of the top 20 “shark catch­ers” – who col­lec­tively ac­count for 80 per­cent of the global shark catch – only 13 have im­ple­mented na­tional plans of ac­tion to pro­tect sharks – the FAO plan’s pri­mary rec­om­men­da­tion.

Even then, im­ple­men­ta­tion is not al­ways ef­fec­tive: Six out of the 20 na­tions have no break­down of shark species when they are landed: Only eight pro­vide data for a limited num­ber of species, and 13 have no species break­down. Without proper iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of species (and vol­umes) that have been caught and traded, we don't know what and how much has been caught, where it has been caught, and where it will end up.

There is a heavy obli­ga­tion on the shoul­ders of large trad­ing na­tions. De­spite the changes in at­ti­tude, a re­port by WWF and TRAF­FIC this year found that Sin­ga­pore re­mains the world’s sec­ond-largest shark fin trader by value, just be­hind Hong Kong. Sin­ga­pore is also the world’s sec­ond-largest re-ex­porter of shark fin, ac­count­ing for 10 per­cent of global ex­ports from 2012 to 2013.

In ad­dress­ing this re­port, WardSing says: “It’s not re­ally a sur­prise to us. But it is very dis­ap­point­ing that such a de­vel­oped, lead­ing Asian coun­try like Sin­ga­pore is such a huge con­trib­u­tor to the shark fin trade… It shows there is still such a huge de­mand for shark fin soup in Asia and this is why we must con­tinue our ed­u­ca­tional pro­grammes world­wide to re­duce the de­mand.”

Sin­ga­pore would be ex­pected to see large vol­umes of any prod­uct pop­u­lar in the re­gion come through its huge port. The same ap­plies to Hong Kong, sit­u­ated on the doorstep of a mas­sive con­sumer, China.

Yet such ma­jor trad­ing hubs can po­ten­tially have a pos­i­tive in­flu­ence – even more so if the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion is against the con­sump­tion of shark fin and wants to see their na­tion have more of an en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact.

“The fact that Sin­ga­pore is a sig­nif­i­cant trader means the so­lu­tion to the global shark cri­sis lies on our shores,” says WWF Sin­ga­pore’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, Elaine Tan. As a fea­si­ble mea­sure, WWF and TRAF­FIC have rec­om­mended that Sin­ga­pore Cus­toms – and other na­tions – be­gin

“The fact that Sin­ga­pore is a sig­nif­i­cant trader means the so­lu­tion to the global shark cri­sis lies on our shores”

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