VIDEO: Inside a shark slaughterhouse in China
October 1st, 2011 - 12:00am
Toronto Star, 1 October 2011 By Bill Schiller, Asia Bureau
PUQI, CHINA—They have roamed the seas for millions of years, survived the rise and fall of the dinosaurs.
But in China, sharks reach their final destination at the end of a road in a town called Puqi.
On the blood-slicked floors of Haideli Shark Products, the air heavy with the smell of ammonia, as many as 100 sharks per day arrive to be butchered and processed as food.
The most highly prized parts — the fins — are destined to become shark fin soup, the high-priced Asian delicacy.
But environmentalists say the growing appetite for the soup comes at a high price: a dangerous decline in shark numbers worldwide, upsetting the balance of the oceans.
That concern is spreading. Four U.S. states and three U.S. possessions have banned the sale and consumption of shark fin.
Next month, Toronto will consider a proposed ban. And in Ottawa, New Democrat MP Fin Donnelly wants a national ban.
Even in Hong Kong, which handles 50 per cent of the global trade in shark fin, there are signs of growing resistance to its consumption.
But here on China’s mainland — which together with Taiwan and Hong Kong consumes 95 per cent of the world’s shark fin — incomes are rising, and so is demand for the delicacy.
In a society where showing off one’s wealth matters, shark fin soup is a powerful status symbol. Buying it means you can afford it, and never before have so many come within reach.
A single bowl at a top Hong Kong restaurant, for example, can cost $200.
In specialty markets, whole fins can sell for $1,600 a kilogram — or more.
“Eating shark’s fin is a deeply rooted tradition, especially at weddings,” says Haideli’s Wang Haifeng, whose family has been in the shark processing business for three generations. “In China we say, ‘Without shark’s fin, it’s not a banquet.’ ”
On a sunny day in September, not far from the southeastern city of Wenzhou, Haideli’s courtyard is covered with thousands of shark fins baking in the afternoon light.
Tens of thousands more are stacked in baskets and bags in surrounding storerooms.
Wang is keen to distance his business from the process of “finning,” a method in which fishermen cut off the fins and toss the bleeding shark back to the sea to die a brutal death.
Canadian ecologist and filmmaker Rob Stewart made “finning” widely known with his 2007 exposé, Sharkwater, a documentary that triggered international outrage.
But it’s not happening here, insists Wang, a well-spoken, 37-year-old university grad. His company processes whole sharks trucked from the southern city of Fuzhou, he says.
It exports shark meat to Sri Lanka and Dubai, and “even the teeth we sell as jewellery,” he says.
But Wang acknowledges the meat isn’t that valuable. As much as 70 per cent of the company’s $7 million in annual revenue come from the fins — which typically make up just 5 per cent of the shark’s body weight.
Haideli is a big business in this small town of narrow lanes on the East China Sea.
Most of its 137 workers are migrants from China’s poorest central provinces. In a warren of workshops they clean, clip and chop the fins into expensive premium products.
Out on the slaughterhouse floor, what takes nature 15 years to nurture — a 150-kilogram blue shark — can be taken apart by an experienced butcher in just 40 minutes.
There are “four or five” such factories in Puqi, Wang says, and about a dozen smaller family-run operations.
Despite studies showing otherwise, Wang says he doesn’t believe shark populations are in decline.
He concedes, when asked, that his factory has processed both whale sharks and great white sharks — two of three species banned outright by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). One, he says, weighed 12 tonnes (26,455 pounds).
“They were caught by mistake in nets,” he explains. “They had already died. And you can’t throw them back in. That would be a waste of resources.
“We are a traditional family business,” he says. “We’re licensed by the Chinese government. And we provide jobs for migrant workers.”
For much of the past year, the shark industry has been under intense pressure.
A high-profile campaign by the environmental group WildAid has been particularly effective. Its selection of NBA legend Yao Ming as its spokesperson in China has gripped the imaginations of many young Chinese.
About 1,000 kilometres south, in Hong Kong’s bustling Des Voeux Road shopping area, the city’s seafood shops teem with noontime traffic.
This is “the Grand Central Station” of the shark trade, as one critic has called it. About 50 per cent of global trade in shark fins passes through here. Not surprisingly, Des Voeux has become a focus of activists’ efforts.
Merchants are nervous: the Star was rebuffed by several shop owners, and ejected by one.
Earlier this year, an in-depth survey of nearly 1,000 locals by the Bloom Association, a Hong Kong non-profit for marine conservation, showed attitudes there are changing.
The survey, conducted by the University of Hong Kong social sciences department, showed that 80 per cent of those polled were aware that shark populations are “vulnerable.”
And while 90 per cent of respondents said that they normally ate shark fin at wedding banquets, more than 78 per cent said they felt it would be “acceptable” or “very acceptable” if shark fin were left off the menu.
Significantly, 85 per cent said they would give “moderate” to “strong” support to ban shark fin imports to Hong Kong.
For shark fin traders, whose business is estimated to be worth more than $280 million annually, this is disturbing news.
“It’s time for me to speak out,” says Charlie Lim, general secretary of Hong Kong’s Marine Products Association.
Seated in his Bonham Strand West office, decorated with shark posters, Lim is furious at Yao Ming and Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson, who held a news conference for WildAid in Shanghai last week.
“Rich people and movie stars join them because it’s a good ‘project,’ ” Lim says sarcastically. “It means you’re a ‘good person.’ ”
But for his members, this isn’t a “project,” he stresses. It’s their living.
What these NGOs are saying doesn’t represent world opinion, Lim insists. For the record, he says, his association wants a “sustainable” shark fishery and is dedicated to upholding the official CITES ban on the three endangered sharks.
But environmentalists believe CITES is a conservative organization.
The World Wildlife Fund notes that the Red List compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has registered 181 sharks and related species as being at various stages of threat and danger — up sharply from just 15 in 1996.
But for Lim and his members, it’s Hong Kongers’ opinions that matter most — and that could be reaching the tipping point.
Marine biologist Stanley Shea, Hong Kong project coordinator for Bloom, says support is clearly growing among the business community.
“They can sense the momentum building,” he says. “They know attitudes are changing.”
The World Wildlife Fund and other NGOs have enlisted schools, businesses, restaurants and caterers in the campaign.
Schools and businesses are pledging not to serve shark fin at official functions.
“Today more than 60 per cent of Hong Kong hotel groups that cater to weddings offer alternative (shark fin-free) menus,” notes Shea, whose own family swore off shark fin in 2003.
Both Shea and Silvy Pun, an environmentalist with the Hong Kong office of the World Wildlife Fund, believe the time is right for Hong Kong’s government to step up.
“The government has a role to play in managing the shark fishery,” says Pun, “but so far they have refused to lay down any guidelines.”
“We handle 50 per cent of the trade,” says Shea, “so it should be us. We should take a leadership role.”
Back in the Chinese capital of Beijing, a telecom executive-turned-environmental activist is leading the charge to ban shark fin on the mainland.
China’s central government is keen to improve its “soft power” around the world, says Zhang Xingsheng, managing director of The Nature Conservancy’s north Asia region. One way to do that, he says, is to ban shark fin.
“The processing (industry) is actually very small,” he says. “A lot of the consumption is from the government budget — taxpayers’ money.”
Zhang also points out that scientific studies have shown shark fin contains heavy metals, which are dangerous to human health.
Last March, billionaire Chinese legislator Ding Liguo made a proposal to the National People’s Congress to ban the trade of shark fin everywhere in China.
“Only legislation can stop shark fin trading and reduce the killing of sharks,” said Ding.
Some in Hong Kong, China and even Toronto say that banning shark fin would be insensitive to a long-standing Chinese cultural tradition.
But Zhang notes that China has ended other customs, such as foot binding.
“That lasted for centuries, and it also changed,” he says.
“Shark’s-fin eating does nothing good for us. We should stop eating it.”
© Toronto Star