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OCTOBER 27, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 42 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Wei Leung for Asiaweek.
More than two million kilos of sharkfin were traded in Hong Kong last year.
More Than We Can Chew
Environment groups are trying to change Hong Kong's destructive eating habits. Can they pull it off?
By MARIA CHENG Hong Kong

Hong Kong financial analyst Roger Mak, 42, is something of a foodie. He orders sharkfin soup, at $40 a bowl, at least twice a month. "I love this stuff," he raves, before tucking into his second bowl at a noisy Hong Kong restaurant packed with enthusiastic customers. Mak doesn't know much about the cruel process in which fishermen rip the fins off the sharks' backs, then leave them to die. Like most patrons in the restaurant, Mak isn't concerned with ecological considerations. "I just like the taste of sharkfin," Mak says with a laugh. Near him, other customers are eating giant grouper and humphead wrasse, two other endangered — and extremely expensive — fish.

Hong Kong people love their food — the more sought-after and the more expensive, the better. As income levels have grown, so has the city's appetite for luxury foods, delicacies such as braised sea slug, sliced abalone, and steamed orange grouper. Ten years ago, a middle-class family might have dined on sharkfin soup only a couple of times a year. Now they may be able to afford it every other month. As a result, Hong Kong environmentalists worry that prized reef fish, sharks and even sea slugs are on the way to becoming extinct. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the humphead wrasse and the giant grouper are so over-eaten that they may vanish in just 10 years. At the same time, cyanide fishing, used to bring in live reef fish that can't be caught with marine nets, is turning rich undersea communities into aquatic graveyards.

The activists are out to curb the city's environmentally incorrect eating habits. The Hong Kong office of the Worldwide Fund for Nature is drawing up a campaign to encourage consumers to eat fewer reef fish, especially those caught by using sodium cyanide. Grassroots activists are also trying to convince Hong Kong officials to set import quotas and monitor fish for cyanide traces to help check destructive practices. It's a tough sell in a city that has for years been known for its general neglect of environmental issues. Ultimately, it's up to the consumer, activists say. One target the Fund is aiming at: marriage registries. There are alternatives to an awesome grouper for the wedding banquet.

There is good reason for the environmentalists to focus their energies on Hong Kong. For one, the city is the world's biggest importer of live reef fish, some of which are becoming endangered. Last year, it imported some 30,000 tons of such fish, about a third of which were destined for the mainland. Groups such as the Nature Conservancy suggest that the live fish industry is driven mainly by demand in Hong Kong and China, though Chinese communities in Southeast Asia also account for a significant portion of consumption. Hong Kong is also the pre-eminent global center for the import and export of sharkfin. Worldwide, approximately 100 million sharks are killed each year, 98% exclusively for their fins. Much of that catch makes its way through Hong Kong, which handled more than 2 million kilograms of sharkfin last year. Besides sending the prized food to be processed in the mainland, Hong Kong imports and exports $141 million worth of fin from all over the world. "At our current rates of consumption, there could be no sharks left within a generation or two, maybe even sooner," estimates Clement Lam, a senior Greenpeace campaigner.

Thanks to environmentalists' campaigning around the region, consumer attitudes have started to change. After passenger complaints, Singapore Airlines pulled sharkfin soup from its first-class service last year, and Thai Airway recently did the same. "Sharkfin soup is a very popular dish among many of our customers, and it was not a simple decision to remove it from our menu," says a spokesperson for Singapore Airlines. "We did so in light of feedback from a number of customers who had expressed concern about finning." Even in Hong Kong, a survey in August by the World Wide Fund for Nature found hopeful signs. About 80% of respondents said that they would either cut down or stop eating a species of fish if they knew that it was threatened. Nearly 60% supported a ban on the import and sale of the giant grouper and humphead wrasse after being told they were listed as vulnerable.

The most successful culinary campaign has been against the serving of facai, or black moss. This plant grows in the arid, sandy regions of Ningxia in northwest China, where poor farmers scratch out a living from selling the prized ingredient. Because this usually means hauling up other soil-stabilizing flora along with the moss, the practice turns vast stretches of poor soil into wasteland. Green groups estimate that for every 450 grams of moss gathered, 16,000 square meters of grassland are ruined. The damage is so serious that China has banned sale of the moss since July.

In Hong Kong, the Conservancy Association launched a drive in June to persuade local restaurants not to serve facai. "A large part of the problem is that people, even those in the restaurant business, don't realize how harmful indiscriminate uprooting of facai is," says Lister Cheung, the association's general secretary. Since the campaign began about four months ago, a dozen restaurants have promised to stop serving the moss — once their existing stock runs out. "Most are worried that they will lose customers if they stop serving facai," says Cheung. "They're willing to read our material, but few are prepared to just stop serving it because it's bad for the environment. It's a question of money."

Lau Wo-ping, who owns the Gong Duk Lam vegetarian restaurant, immediately removed facai from his menu when he heard about the environmental dangers. "I never realized how destructive harvesting facai could be," says Lau. His decision hasn't had much of an impact on business — not that money was a big concern. "I just didn't want to be involved in something that is very harmful to the land in China," says Lau. "I don't think that many people actually miss the taste. Facai doesn't add much flavor anyway. They just eat it for luck." Traditionally, black moss is prized for its auspicious name (facai sounds like "to get rich" in Putonghua and Cantonese).

Despite a handful of small successes, old attitudes die hard. For thousands of years, food has been a focal point of Chinese life. Sharkfin soup, for one, is a delicacy dating back to the Song Dynasty. These days, the dish has become almost indispensable at wedding banquets, festivals and family celebrations. "You really can't have a banquet without sharkfin soup, or you will look cheap," says Willy Mark, president of the Federation of Hong Kong Restaurant Owners. Never mind that the fin is virtually tasteless. The soup's flavor comes from the broth. You might as well use mushrooms or shredded roast duck instead of fin. But there's the snob appeal, Mark notes. "People want to eat it just because it's hard to get." The Conservancy Association's Cheung sighs. "They think if it's rare and has a high value, then it must be good."

Mindsets are not much different in Singapore, another affluent city with a growing taste for expensive seafood. Chua Sek Chuan, a marine biologist in the Lion City, has an acid view of the Asian mentality toward dining. It can be summed up as "eat first, pay the bill, go home and sleep; maybe a belch in between," he says. "Very few [people] will consider the environmental and ecological impact of obtaining food, seafood in particular."

Environmentalists are already running into opposition from restaurants and importers because the business of selling endangered fish is so profitable. Dwindling supplies or not, restaurateurs like Yeung Koon-yat are ready to fulfill their patron's appetites. "As long as we can buy sharkfin, we will serve it," says Yeung, one of Hong Kong's most prominent chefs. "Customers want to eat the sharkfin and expensive seafood, so we do what's good for business," he says. "But if it gets to a point where there isn't any left, I guess we will have to see what we can do then."

If seafood trader Ricky Ho is right, Chinese people won't lose their appetite for luxury foods such as sharkfin. "There will always be buyers, no matter how high the prices go up," he says. A doubling in sharkfin prices over the past few years has barely put a dent in his sales. "It means there are different people buying the sharkfin now. Not everyone can afford it, but those who can want more, just to prove that they have the money," he says. And as Asian economies begin to recover, that will put even greater pressure on fish stocks.

The key to solving the eco-dilemma will be finding new ways for fishermen and farmers to make a living. Environmental problems are inevitably linked to socio-economic issues. Cheung, for one, will joining officials from China's National Forestry Bureau in November to discuss strategies to curb damage from facai harvesting. Just as options must be found for the Chinese peasants for whom moss gathering is the only means of income, so poor fishermen in Southeast Asia need to be shown alternatives. In the live seafood trade, notes marine biologist Chua, much of the environmental destruction occurs when fishing companies from richer nations provide fisherfolk in Indonesia, for example, with the materials for capturing fish live, usually a poison like sodium cyanide. Since the people doing the actual fishing are from coastal villages, once nearby marine habitats are destroyed, the fishermen's livelihood — and that of the villages — suffers. "The large, rich companies suffer nothing," says Chua. "They just move on and continue plundering." The Nature Conservancy notes that as target species are exhausted in the Philippines and Indonesia, fishing companies are moving to new frontiers such as Papua New Guinea. In Hong Kong, importers have already had to turn to suppliers from as far away as Fiji and the Seychelles.

The environmental message is starting to filter across Asia. According to Cheung of the Conservancy Association, a number of Singapore restaurants have agreed to blacklist facai. Taiwan, too, is joining the black moss boycott. After an alert from the association, the Taiwan government recently announced that it would exclude facai from official functions. Hong Kong officials, however, have yet to respond to this initiative.

For most campaigners, the line of attack is education, education and more education. The Worldwide Fund, for example, is drawing up media campaigns aimed at strategic audiences. One key target: middle-aged professionals, who are among the biggest seafood diners. Misconceptions are certainly widespread. Consider university student Yam Kip-shek's response to objections about such cruel practices as finning: "The fins just grow back anyway." The Conservancy Association is trying to nip problematic habits in the bud. It has launched a school program to get the message on facai to younger kids. "It is hard to convince people who have believed for many years that eating facai is good luck," she explains. "We may have a better chance with their children."

At the Worldwide Fund for Nature, conservation officer Noel Chan is even more gung-ho. "People will change their attitudes once they are informed," she says. That may seem overly optimistic. But then Hong Kong people have always been very pragmatic. "I don't think anybody wants to contribute to the extinction of a species," she adds. That, after all, would be one expensive dinner.

With reporting by Jacintha Stephens/Singapore

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