China's shark fin craze dying
A SPRAWLING market floor in Guangzhou was once a prime location for shark fin, one of China's most expensive delicacies. But now it lies deserted, thanks to a ban from official banquet tables and a celebrity-driven advertisement campaign.
One shopkeeper at the Shanhaicheng centre quietly ate his lunch at a desk, flanked by four colleagues and giant sacks overflowing with thousands of dollars' worth of unsold stock.
A woman at the next stall fiddled with her mobile phone, bags of dried yellow fins untouched on the shelves behind her.
Outside, the bustling, narrow streets of the southern Chinese city were packed.
"I don't eat shark fin," said a 23-year-old shopper surnamed Ling. "It's dirty. It's cruel. And I think it's quite expensive.
"Some people eat it because they think it gives them status. But it doesn't. And I hear it doesn't even taste that good."
Fetching as much as 1,600 yuan (S$325) a bowl, shark fin soup has long been among China's most prized dishes, renowned as much for its supposed medicinal qualities as for its associations with wealth and power.
But the appetites of many Chinese diners appear to have been spoilt by the authorities banning the dish from official banquets, and a national anti-shark fin advertising drive backed by former National Basketball Association star Yao Ming and other celebrities.
Environmental and animal rights groups have campaigned for decades against consumption of shark fin, arguing that demand for the delicacy has decimated the world's shark population and that the methods used to obtain it are inhumane.
Fins are often sliced off while the sharks are still alive, before they are thrown back into the ocean to die, despite finning being banned in roughly one-third of countries, according to the Pew Environment Group.
China consumes more shark fin than any other country in the world, according to the campaign group WildAid.
The tide began to turn in 2012, when the ruling Communist Party announced a government ban on serving shark fin, bird's nest soup and other wild animal products at official functions, saying that it would set a precedent that would help protect endangered species.
Around the same time, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched a much-publicised austerity drive for the ruling classes, in tandem with an anti-corruption push that has claimed notable scalps despite a lack of systemic reforms.
WildAid also began its high-profile, celebrity-backed ad campaign on the issue, targeting consumers with the tagline: "When the buying stops, the killing can too."
Demand has since decreased dramatically, the group said, with the biggest impact in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province and the heart of China's shark fin industry.
A WildAid survey released this month said shark fin sales had slumped in the city, with retail prices falling an average 57 per cent and wholesale costs dropping by 47 per cent.
In neighbouring Hong Kong, a major transit point for the trade, import-export volumes have plunged.
The largest category, undried fins with cartilage, went from almost 6,800 tonnes in 2011 to less than two tonnes last year, government statistics showed - although dried fins with cartilage still stood at around 3,800 tonnes.
Several major hotel chains and airlines in the region have banned it and WildAid's executive director, Peter Knight, said: "Demand reduction can be very effective. The more people learn about the consequences of eating shark fin soup, the less they want to participate in the trade."
Government bans on the dish, he added, "helped send the right message and this could be a model to address issues such as ivory".