It would be something of a stretch to herald China’s pledge to ban shark fin soup from official dinners as evidence of a conversion to conservationism. The ban, announced last week, is aimed at least in part at stemming a backlash against lavish public spending. But regardless of the motivations, the decision strikes a significant blow against one of the world’s most unsustainable practices.
It is difficult to overstate the terrible recklessness and irresponsibility of a form of hunting that kills up to 73 million sharks annually, all so that a tiny (and almost tasteless) portion of their bodies can be eaten in broth. At present, China is responsible for an estimated 95 per cent of that consumption. The country’s increased wealth has spurred demand for a dish perceived to be a status symbol, with the result that species of sharks could be entirely wiped out if action is not taken.
While China’s official state media reports that the ban will take up to three years to implement (how difficult is it to change a menu?), hopefully the decision will encourage other Chinese elites to follow suit.
Whatever the government’s motivation, the attention will help raise awareness in China about the environmental repercussions of the practice, lending momentum to an anti-shark fin soup campaign led by former basketball star Yao Ming and others. That could be enough to get the dish off menus in Hong Kong, as well, where it is still widely available despite signs that public opinion has started to turn against it.
Hopefully, the impact will also be felt across the Chinese diaspora - including in this country, where shark fin soup still appears on restaurant menus and banquet tables. While immigrants should not normally be expected or encouraged to take their cues from governments they left behind - especially this one - the fact that high-ranking officials are prepared to go without this dish suggests the tradition can safely be retired elsewhere, too.