SNGAPORE: The demand for shark fin soup has been declining in recent years, according to restaurants, hotels and suppliers in Singapore.
But observers say that sharks could still face extinction in the next 10 years, and traders have already begun stockpiling fins.
To the Chinese, serving shark fins is a sign of prestige and wealth.
Once a rare delicacy only affordable to the elite, rising affluence among Chinese communities has placed shark fins within reach for hundreds of millions across Asia.
The dish's popularity has led to global shark populations falling by up to 98 per cent in the last 15 years, with many species hunted close to extinction.
“Currently, all our shark fins… are a bit smaller. The larger ones are also very hard to find,” said Tam Su Yi, sales manager at Tam Kah Shark’s Fin Trading, one of Singapore’s largest shark fin suppliers.
“Because of government regulations in other countries, they (shark catchers)… stop. If it is too big, then they don't want to capture it."
Jonn Lu, director of Shark Savers Asia Pacific, said: “A lot of case studies have told us from around the world that when sharks disappear, it's not just sharks but also a lot of other marine species. The loss of marine biodiversity, fish biomass is a big problem in the ocean.
“When sharks stop playing a role as top predators within the system, then we see a tropic cascade, and that's something scientists refer to as the ‘cascading effect of top predator loss.’
“In many places around the world where sharks used to thrive, we've seen declines of anywhere from 80-100 per cent. There used to be a lot of Singaporean sharks, and Malaysian sharks and Thai sharks. And now in a couple of decades, they're just completely wiped out."
Sharks play a key role in the marine ecosystem as the top predator, keeping other species in check. Reducing their numbers drastically can throw the marine environment out of balance.
But there are signs that shark fins are fast losing popularity.
In October 2011, Cold Storage removed shark fins and other shark products from all its outlets nationwide. A few months later in January 2012, NTUC Fairprice followed suit.
By 2013, 11 hotels have removed shark fin soup from their banquet menus. The latest to join the movement is Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel, which made an announcement in May 2013. The other hotels include Shangri-La, Swissotel The Stamford, The Westin and The Fullerton.
More hotels around the world are expected to join their ranks, but the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says it is not yet ready to make a public announcement. The WWF hopes to get five new hotels or restaurants to join in the movement every year.
Official data in Singapore from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), also shows that consumption levels are falling steadily.
Restaurants still serving shark fin say their orders are smaller this year as more corporate diners and wedding couples opt for other delicacies like abalone and fish maw soup instead.
“We see a tremendous drop in corporate or MNC companies who are entertaining their clients or staff during the Chinese New Year period; they prefer menus without shark fin,” said Patrick Ng, manager at Man Fu Yuan.
“We will definitely need to find a substitute ingredient which is similar in pricing or higher in pricing, to substitute the shark fin. Easily… 50 per cent or even more people would opt without sharks fin."
But suppliers say demand is still strong from restaurants.
Mr Tam said: “Even though the hotel sales decrease, the restaurants have increased… significantly. They order in very large quantities. Our factory is having difficulty pushing out our stocks as well --a few hundred kilogrammes per hotel."
Conservationists say traders have revealed in undercover interviews that they believe only 10 years are left to save the sharks before they go extinct.
Singapore remains the second highest consumer of shark fins per capita and this Lunar New Year, a new campaign is being launched to change this.
The largest celebrity-led campaign in the region aims to save sharks before it is too late and Singaporean stars are also joining hands in this single cause.
The "Nian Nian You Yu" campaign started on social media in 2012, but this marks the first year the campaign is going on mainstream media. In a few weeks, the public messages will air on MioTV, National Geographic and possibly on MediaCorp's free-to-air channels.
WWF also says it plans to organise the first-ever Sustainable Seafood Festival in 2014, to raise awareness about the pressing need to protect sharks and other marine life that is vulnerable to overfishing and unsustainable trade.
After years of lobbying, the Hong Kong government made the decision in September last year to ban shark fin soup at all state banquets. A year before, China made a similar announcement. WWF says it wants to see the Singapore government take the same proactive step to declare that Singapore too, is finished with fins.
In May 2013, Singapore registered a negative vote during an international discussion in Bangkok to add new species of sharks to a protection list.
Currently, only the basking shark, whale shark and great white shark are protected under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). But the extended list received majority votes from 178 member countries.
From 14 September 2014, new species of sharks will be protected under CITES -- the Oceanic White-tip Shark, three species of Hammerhead sharks and the Porbeagle shark.
This means that the import and export of these sharks will require permits by authorities from CITES. The AVA says that traders which circumvent this law will be fined up to S$50,000 and jailed for up to two years. - CNA/ec
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