HK fin traders feel pressure of changing tastes

Updated: 2011-11-28 11:10

(China Daily)

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HONG KONG - The owner of Shark's Fin City, a dried fin wholesaler in Hong Kong, said there are only a few people who know the truth about sharks, and he is one of them.

Like many Hong Kong businessmen who trade in shark fins, Kwong Hung-kwan said he believes his industry is being targeted by an anti-Chinese conspiracy led by "Western" environmental groups like Greenpeace.

Talk of a dramatic decline in shark populations around the world is rubbish, he said, dismissing research showing an eight-fold jump in threatened shark species since 2000.

Experts agree that much of that rise is linked to increases in consumption of shark meat, especially fins used in traditional Chinese shark fin soup, an expensive staple at weddings and banquets.

"Shark fins represent our Chinese tradition. It used to be served only to royalty and is, even now, a very luxurious cuisine from the deep sea," Kwong said at his store in Hong Kong's Des Voeux Road area.

The western end of Des Voeux Road and nearby Queen's Road West, not far from the central business district, are a hive of musty shops selling a vast array of dried food from mushrooms to seahorses.

It is the center of the global shark fin trade, with about 10,000 tons of dried fins imported every year, according to environmental group WWF. That's about half of the world's total fin harvest.

"For some people in the older generation like me, we depend on selling shark fins as our source of income," Kwong said. His fins come mainly from Spain and South America, but he will happily buy from anywhere, he said.

Businessmen like Kwong and his neighbors on Des Voeux Road were shocked last week when the luxury Peninsula Hotels chain, owned by Asia's oldest hotel company, announced it was dropping shark fin from its menu as of January.

Conservationists applauded the move as a breakthrough in their long battle to get Asian consumers to "just say no" to shark fin soup. But some of those in the fin business were apoplectic.

"It's not cruel at all killing sharks. There are so many sharks out there and if you don't kill them, they will kill you," said a Des Voeux Road fin seller who gave his name only as Chan.

On the other hand, Wong Wai-man of Wing Hang Marine Products Ltd, acknowledged that times were changing and younger generations were more environmentally conscious about what they ate than older Hong Kong people.

"Some people say shark fins are absolutely irreplaceable. But what happens when sharks one day become extinct or are illegal to catch? At the end of the day, we need alternatives," he said, suggesting birds' nests as a substitute.

WWF-Hong Kong says the consumption of shark fins, which has grown as China's people have become more affluent, is a driving factor behind the threat to shark populations around the world.

An individual serving of shark fin soup includes about 30 grams of fin, and a 12-person bowl sells for HK$1,080 ($140). A kilogram of premium dried fin can fetch up to HK$10,000 in Hong Kong.