The world’s sharks should send Xi Jinping a thank-you note.
The Chinese president has been on the anti-corruption tip for years, but he’s recently kicked the policy into high gear, ordering the arrests of prominent party officials as he scrubs his house of political enemies.
Jinping’s anti-corruption efforts have also spawned a frugality drive. As the Washington Post reported in April, many signs of decadence are now on the decline in China. Five-star hotels have begun voluntarily downgrading themselves because Chinese officials have been lambasted for holding banquets at the very finest establishments. Sales of luxury goods from Prada, Luis Vuitton, and Gucci have slowed, as have top-shelf liquors and Swiss watches.
And so have bowls of shark fin soup, which can fetch more than $100 apiece.
According to a new report from WildAid, sales of shark fin have fallen by 50 to 70 percent in China—a drastic decrease by any calculation. While many people polled said that awareness campaigns and fears over fake fins and high mercury levels played a big role in their decision to stop consuming shark fins, more than a quarter of respondents cited China’s 2013 ban on shark fin from state banquets as a key motivator. (China has not, however, banned finning, the stupidly cruel practice of slicing the fins from living sharks that are then thrown back into the water to bleed to death or drown.)
Shark fin soup is—or was, at least—hugely popular at weddings and other big celebrations, as it’s long been associated with prosperity. Because of this practice, WildAid estimates that about 100 million sharks are killed each year, with up to 73 million used for shark fin soup. That’s led to the near-total collapse of some species in the region.
In Hong Kong, which was for decades considered shark fin HQ, exports to China have drastically fallen. WWF-Hong Kong reported in April that 2013 sales to the mainland dropped by nearly 90 percent from the previous year, from 1.2 million kilograms to 113,973 kilograms. (Vietnam, which doesn’t traditionally consume shark fin, is now Hong Kong’s biggest re-export market.) A member of WWF-Hong Kong told the South China Morning Post that “the central government’s anti-corruption measures could have played a role in the big drop in re-exports.”
Indeed they have. One wholesale trader in Guangzhao told WildAid, “Prices dropped because government taxes are not used for purchasing shark fins anymore.” Another told the group that it was simply selling off its stockpile instead of new catches “because shark fin is a dying business.”
That shouldn’t diminish the role that groups like WildAid have played in highlighting overfishing and cruel harvesting practices to the Chinese public and the world at large. WildAid’s campaign with Yao Ming was instrumental in raising the profile of anti-fin efforts and spreading awareness to consumers.
But the government’s role can’t be understated, either. In September, the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Angelo Villagomez asserted, “It’s not to do with conservation. It’s related to a Chinese government anti-graft crackdown, which has cut back on dinners where shark fin soup was featured on the menu.”
Perhaps the reasons behind the shark fin decline don’t really matter, as long as it translates to fewer people killing fewer sharks. In another world, however, the government might have gone as far as banning the fishing of highly endangered species of sharks, or at least put the kibosh on finning. It’s as wasteful as it is sadistic.