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Shark-Finning – The End Game?

Put a lid on finning in one place, and the shark-hunters just turn up elsewhere. It’s not supply that must be turned off, says Richard Peirce, it’s demand – and for the first time, he reckons there are grounds for optimism.


 British divers are aware of the threat to the world’s shark populations through over fishing. This unsustainable catching of sharks is to satisfy demand for fins for shark-fin soup, and mainland Chinese consumption has been estimated to represent as much as 95% of the world total. Non-governmental organisations including the Shark Trust, and campaigners around the world, are working to limit catches and thereby reduce supply. Bite-Back and others continue to campaign to stop Chinese restaurants in Britain selling shark-fin soup, and the Shark Alliance works at EU government level in Brussels to bring about effective laws to stop finning by EU vessels.


Valuable though these efforts are, they are aimed at reducing supply. These fisheries measures can only ever have a limited impact, without effective policing of the world’s oceans to back them up. So long as the demand remains, suppliers will find ways of meeting it, and at the moment demand is increasing all the time. A British Embassy source in Beijing told me that 15 years from now, there will be 250 million more middle-class consumers in China! For some time, many of us have realised that the most effective way to save shark populations from the fin trade is, rather than play the long game of working on the supply, to limit or stop the demand. In recent years, public-awareness campaigns in China have slowly started to have an impact, particularly among young Chinese. But with 15-16 million new middle-class consumers potentially becoming shark-fin soup customers each year, this approach will not be effective fast enough. The only hope for sharks is action to cut demand fast, while there are still viable shark populations to save.


This March, the Shark Trust heard that three leading Chinese figures were proposing legislation to ban the import of shark fins into mainland China. If true, this would be the biggest game-changer in shark conservation yet. Our investigations showed that Xingsheng (Jim) Zhang, Ding Liguo and Wan Jie were proposing the necessary legislation in both tiers of the country’s legislature, the People’s National Congress (PNC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC). The Shark Trust gives “Shark Champion” awards to individuals and organisations that have helped the Trust or made notable contributions to shark conservation. The board voted unanimously that such awards be offered to Jim Zhang and the two Chinese legislators. I contacted them, they accepted, and on 2 June I flew to Beijing to present the awards, first at a ceremony hosted by the British Ambassador and then, two days later, for the benefit of Chinese media, at the SEE-TNC awards ceremony for World Environment Day. Beijing is an exciting place, no matter who you are, but for me it wasn’t just exciting, it was potentially life-changing.


Zhang and his two colleagues were by no means the only shark-saving game in town. WildAid has for many years been reaching Chinese audiences with public-awareness campaigns, and is also involved in trying to facilitate legislation. Several leading Chinese celebrities are making a point of declaring publicly that they won’t eat shark-fin soup. In September, Sir Richard Branson will land in Shanghai, and it is hoped that the Virgin aircraft in which he lands will be painted as a shark. Branson will join Chinese basketball superstar and campaigner Yao Min for a high-profile awareness push. Social media campaigns are reaching hundreds of thousands with the anti-shark-fin soup message. In Egypt and Tunisia, social media helped to overthrow governments, so they should be able to contribute towards stopping the sale of bowls of soup. The general vibe, pace and energy of Beijing is infectious, and so is the commitment and enthusiasm of China’s pro-shark campaigners. The Shark Trust awards acknowledge the legislative initiative taken and will, we hope, encourage and promote further action. I really didn’t think that the inbuilt culture of centuries would change, but by the end of my visit I was convinced that it would – the question is, how fast? All we know is that the Shark Champion awards triggered a major media reaction in South-east Asia. Accompanying me to China was Steve Bowles, the director and co-producer of our forthcoming film The Fin Trail, a shark documentary with a real campaigning agenda. Our story always was that all trails led to China, but what is happening in China has now become as important as these trails. Supply and demand – you can’t have one without the other. Steve and I are now re-writing The Fin Trail, not only to try to help restrict the supply but also to do what we can to support efforts to stop the demand. (