China Is Eating Less Shark Fin, but Its Appetite for Another Endangered Ocean Creature Is Growing

A new study finds consumption of sea cucumbers is soaring even as the Chinese start to shun shark fin soup.

(Photo: Will Burgess/Reuters)

Feb 20, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Is shark fin soup on the way out? Just a few years ago, the deadly delicacy was in high demand in China, where it was served at state dinners and other important business or family events. In 2011, more than 10 million kilograms of shark fin were imported to Hong Kong alone. Some shark populations have plummeted in recent years because of that demand.

Now—thanks in part to a series of campaigns by conservationist groups—the consumption of shark fin soup appears to be waning. China has banned serving shark fin soup at state functions, and consumers in both Hong Kong and mainland China have also started to lose their appetite for the dish. According to a paper recently published in the journal Biological Conservation, shark fin consumption has dropped by 25 percent over the past few years.

This isn’t much—and it’s less than some other conservation groups have recently claimed—but it’s a start, and it illustrates that consumption is indeed decreasing, said shark scientist David Shiffman, who was not affiliated with the study.

While we’ve been paying attention to sharks, another group of species has been lost in the mix. According to the study, sea cucumbers—marine animals that are relatives of starfish—remain highly traded and consumed in China, where they are eaten as a dish called bêche-de-mer. At least seven sea cucumber species are endangered.

“Demand for sea cucumber does not appear to have been affected by any of the campaigns for shark fin conservation, including the Chinese government’s actively limiting banquets where both shark fin and sea cucumbers are consumed,” said the paper’s lead author, Hampus Eriksson, a scientist with WorldFish and the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security.

Eriksson said that although millions of sea cucumbers are traded every year, the message that they are becoming endangered is not yet being heard.

“Public attention and conservation agendas tend to focus on sharks,” he said. “Many people are probably not even aware that sea cucumbers are fished and traded to meet similar cultural demand. Perhaps this is because of the emblematic status of sharks.”

Glenn Sant, fisheries trade program leader for TRAFFIC, praised the paper and said it highlights the need for “better management and information around the catch and trade of sharks and sea cucumbers.”

Previous TRAFFIC studies have shown that the data on sea cucumber catches fail to convey the true nature of the fishing impact because it is all recorded simply as “bêche-de-mer” when it is imported. The countries of origin and the exact species are never noted. TRAFFIC research also suggests that much of the trade is illegal.

Sant called the current system a “treadmill” of overexploitation in which countries don’t know what they are importing, and buyers don’t know what they are consuming.

“We are currently a long way from having scientifically based catch levels, traceability, and control over the trade in products and the blocking of unsustainable and illegal product to our consumers,” he said.

Done properly, Eriksson noted, sea cucumber harvesting could help to alleviate poverty in many parts of the world.

“All that is really required to collect sea cucumbers is a bucket,” he said. “As a result, sea cucumber fishing is a valuable livelihood to some of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities in the world.”

That, he pointed out, will require proper governance of fisheries and supply chains to make sure that sea cucumbers are harvested sustainably and fishers get the benefit of their labors.

Eriksson and his coauthor, Shelley Clarke of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, wrote that the “current regulatory environment is insufficient.” They have called for better trade data to evaluate trends and guide efforts to manage and conserve both sharks and sea cucumbers.