A recent reinterpretation of China’s criminal law by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress has made it illegal to consume parts from any of the species included on a list of 450 rare or endangered animals. Although the law already prohibited the trade of protected species, the new amendment defines the conscious purchase or consumption of endangered animal products as a form of trade, thereby putting the responsibility for the survival of threatened species on the shoulders of the buyer. In addition to directly addressing the Chinese taste for exotic animal parts, the new legislation makes it illegal to knowingly purchase wild animals killed as a result of illegal hunting, whether for consumption or any other reason. The list of protected species includes golden monkeys, pangolins, the giant panda and Asiatic black bears. Most excitingly for the dive community, it also restricts the sale and purchase of shark-fin soup, although it is not yet clear whether all types of shark are included on the list, or whether it refers to particular species. Those caught breaking the new law could face a prison sentence of 10 years or more, while those found purchasing animals killed by illegal hunting operations could incur a maximum of three years behind bars.
Although China is home to 1/10th of the world’s vertebrates, the demand for endangered animal products for consumption or use in traditional medicine in Chinese culture is the catalyst behind the decline of much of the world’s wildlife. Although rarely substantiated by modern medical research, the belief that endangered animal products, including bear bile, tiger bones and shark cartilage, possess healing properties is often cited as the reason behind the popularity of such products in China. The deputy head of the Chinese parliament’s Legislative Affairs Commission, Lang Sheng, supported the new legislation, and said “buyers are a major motivator of large-scale illegal hunting.” Wildlife crime is a serious matter. As the fourth most prevalent illegal activity in the world it is responsible for driving species to the brink of extinction and includes poaching, illegal harvesting and cross-border trading. “Adopting this new legislation is a critical step to reduce the consumption of endangered species,” said Paul Thompson of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The recent amendment could have serious ramifications on the trade in shark-fin soup, which has an almost exclusive market among Chinese ethnic groups. Although shark fins are exported from all over the world, they are processed almost solely for Chinese consumers. Its popularity in Chinese culture dates back many centuries; the soup has been used to denote wealth and to promote good health since the Ming Dynasty in the 1300s. In modern-day China, the soup is served at social gatherings of the wealthy elite or at official functions, as a status symbol and to demonstrate respect for the attending guests. In traditional Chinese medicine, shark fin is reported as being beneficial to the kidneys, lungs and bones, as well as having many other valuable attributes. However, these attributes have never been proven — in fact, shark products are likely to contain enough mercury to be damaging to human health.
That being said, the threat posed to human health by consuming shark fins is negligible in comparison to the damage inflicted on the sharks themselves. The practice of finning is incredibly wasteful, utilizing only 2 to 5 percent of the shark’s body. Because fins are worth considerably more than the rest of the shark, the animals are customarily thrown back into the ocean — alive and left to bleed to death or drown — to make space for more fins on board. Whereas shark meat retails for approximately $14 per kilo, the same weight in fins can sell for up to $700. In Asia, a single fin is worth up to $1,400, while a serving of shark-fin soup can cost as much as $100. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that the shark-fin trade represents between 1.1 and 2.2 million tons of shark catch each year, and that 73 million sharks are killed annually to meet the demands of the trade. Such astronomical figures make the continued survival of the species dubious — it is estimated that 90 percent of the world’s sharks have been killed in the last century alone. Of those that remain, 55 percent of the species classified by the IUCN Red List are considered threatened or near threatened with extinction. Until legislation like China’s newly revised criminal law is suitably enforced, sharks have very little chance of recovery. They are particularly susceptible to overfishing due to their late sexual maturity and their slow rate of reproduction.
The preservation of what little is left of the world’s shark population is of vital importance to the global marine ecosystem. Apex predators, sharks play a critical role in maintaining the balance of the ocean food chain. Without them, the future of all marine species is jeopardized, in turn threatening the fish stocks upon which commercial fisheries and local communities depend. Our fate is inextricably tied to that of the ocean, and to the future of the world’s sharks. Although this new legislation seems like a major victory for shark conservation, in reality it will prove difficult to enforce. Whether the ban provides blanket protection for all sharks or only for a few select species is important — once processed, it is almost impossible to tell whether a shark fin belongs to a protected species or not. The most exciting aspect about this amendment is that it signifies a gradual shift in Asian awareness, and a general movement towards a brighter future for shark conservation. These events include the decision to ban shark fin from the menus of official functions in Hong Kong, the recent decision by Philippine Airlines to stop transporting fins, and the protection of an unprecedented number of shark species at last year’s CITES convention. Perhaps landmarks like these signal a decline in the demand for shark fin — and when the buying stops, the killing can too.