One Small Chinese Fish Factory Vs. An NBA Giant And A School Of Sharks

China's basketball legend Yao Ming wants to save the sharks. Wang Haifeng wants to save 500 jobs. Who are you rooting for? Have you ever tried shark fin soup?

Save the shark fin industry!
Save the shark fin industry!
Harold Thibault

PUQI – If Wang Haifeng could meet Chinese basketball star Yao Ming, he would try to convince him that he’s wrong about his support for protecting sharks. And he isn’t the only one to criticize the former NBA player’s work against the consumption of shark fins.

In the village of Puqi, 500 kilometers south of Shanghai, the fish factory employs more than 500 people. “This has had an impact on our business,” says Wang, head of Haideli Shark Products, which produces 1,000 tons of shark meat each year. “Young people who aren’t familiar with these dishes are talked out of eating them, sometimes for good.”

In the factory, shark blood is rinsed off with a hose. Shark skins are flattened out on the floor, giving off a strong fish smell. Baskets are piled high with blue shark heads. Outside, thousands of fins are drying out in the sun, on wire mesh resting on trestles.

Li Weijie, who runs a neighboring factory, says Puqi started specializing in shark meat well before the 1949 Chinese revolution. When he was young the techniques were much simpler, “just a knife and a bag of salt.”

“Business is no longer good,” says Li. Both men blame Yao Ming’s TV ads. A first ad campaign was launched in 2009, another last year. In them the athlete says: “When the buying stops, the massacre will stop too.”

“Society is turning against us; that because of all these articles in the press,” says Wang. “They’re trying to make us believe that all sharks are protected, which is not true!” Only three types of sharks are on the list of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES): the whale shark, the basking shark and the great white shark. Countries like Japan, Indonesia and China are opposed to adding other species to the list.

A frozen hammerhead shark fetus

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), out of the 270 species surveyed, 55% are endangered or critically endangered by over fishing. Hammerhead sharks “are globally endangered species.” In March 2010, they came close to being on the CITES blacklist. With 75 votes for and 45 against, the hammerhead shark didn’t reach the two-thirds majority required for a ban on trade.

In Puqi, Wang proudly shows a bag containing three 20-centimeter hammerhead shark fetuses that have been sitting in the factory’s freezer since they were taken out from their mother. Li confirms that the species is highly regarded for its taste.

Puqi’s entrepreneurs feel abandoned by Chinese authorities, who they say are driven by populism rather than by the environment. “Our industry is small and Yao Ming is highly respected, so the government doesn’t support us. It’s frustrating,” says Wang.

These factories deny buying fins that fishermen cut at sea before discarding the dying shark in the water, a practice known as “shark finning,” that is condemned by environmental organizations. Both factory owners show the numerous carcasses on the floor as proof and go as far as denying that shark finning even exists. “It’s impossible, the other parts of the shark are worth a lot!” says Li. Wang prides himself in using almost every part of the animal: the stomach is fried, the spinal chord is turned into calcium powder, the meat is consumed locally or salted and exported to Sri Lanka and the teeth are made into pendants.

But fins are the most prized cuts. They only represent 4% of the shark’s body but at least 30% of Li’s factory’s revenue. The limited availability justifies the exorbitant prices on restaurant menus. For 5 kilograms of raw fin, the factory will only produce 500 grams of eatable meat. One kilo of processed blue shark fin costs 1000 Yuan ($160).

Neither Li nor Wang believe the shark population is declining. “Resources will keep increasing,” says Wang. “That’s what Yao Ming doesn’t understand. Quantities at sea have not shrunk. There are enough sharks.”

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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