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?
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.”