No bite

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 April, 2012, 12:00am


The decision made earlier this year by two Hong Kong-based hotel groups to ban shark fin from their restaurants represented a significant landmark in the campaign to end its consumption. Indeed, taking shark fin off the menu prevents people from ordering it.

A growing number of campaigners are now turning their attention towards the trade and import of shark fin. Much of the current efforts have been geared at getting airlines to ban shark fin from their cargo flights.

Yet it is broadly accepted that the only way to really prevent the consumption of shark fin is to get the government to legislate a ban. While younger generations may not mind a ban, and may even be in favour of it, older generations are more keen to cling to this aspect of Chinese cuisine. Thus far, the Hong Kong government has been unwilling to get involved. It told one newspaper that regulation of food consumed at official banquets would be 'inappropriate'.

The government is unlikely to change its mind in the near future. And it is easy to see why. The fact is that the arguments put forth against eating shark fin are largely persuasive only to those who are already predisposed to a ban. In other words, existing campaigns are unlikely to appeal to most proponents of shark fin dishes.

Campaigners highlight the rapidly declining number of sharks in what may be called the 'conservationist argument'. If people continue the cruel and unsustainable practice of shark-finning, there will be no more sharks left. The unfortunate irony of this argument is that it only heightens the appeal of shark fin as a status symbol - accessible and affordable to only a select few.

Indeed, the conservationist argument completely misses the point of why people continue to trade and consume shark fin: it is an indisputable part of Chinese culinary heritage. This tradition, in turn, has fostered an industry that supports the livelihood of many people in Hong Kong. While mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong together consume 95per cent of the word's fins, Hong Kong remains at the epicentre of the shark fin trade. The numbers shed light on the role that the trade plays for the Hong Kong economy.

There are surely cultural and economic arguments to be made against the consumption of shark fin that have been overlooked by campaigners. Yet constructing persuasive arguments of this sort will not be an easy task. While observers may point out why the tradition of eating shark's fin soup is archaic, cruel and wrong, this line of argument overlooks the fact that people rarely follow traditions because they are rational.

Economic arguments are even more difficult to make, as they need to demonstrate the necessity of depriving those employed in the shark fin industry - often spanning several generations - of their livelihood, and to suggest meaningful alternatives to their existing trade.

Until persuasive arguments can be made against cultural and economic reasons for continuing the trade and consumption of shark fin, public campaigns will fall on deaf ears among those who need to hear the message most.

Rachel Tsang is a PhD candidate and has taught political theory at the London School of Economics