Shark's fin soup -- a cruel dish
In the last week of May 2012, Lee Won-bok was standing in front of the Lotte Hotel in central Seoul. Together with a couple of other animal rights activists, the 40-year-old was demonstrating against the serving of shark fin soup -- known in Korea as "buldojang" -- at big Korean hotel giants like Lotte. Lee, a vegan for over 20 years, is the president of the Korea Association for Animal Protection (KAAP).
"People in Korea think the sharks are hunted, and besides the fins, the flesh is also eaten. But that is a misconception," says Lee.
He is referring to what is called "finning" that makes the origin of shark fin soup exceptionally cruel. The sharks are pulled out of the water, the fins are cut off with a knife and the bleeding shark torso is thrown back into the ocean -- alive -- to await a painful death.
It is against such hunting methods that activists like Lee are protesting.
Demonstrations like the one in Seoul has been happening all over Asia this year, mostly in Hong Kong and mainland China, but for activists, positive changes have been slower in Korea than in other countries.
Hong Kong is the world's shark capital with approximately 50 percent of the global shark fin trade going through the ports of the Chinese special administrative city. The Hong Kong Shark Foundation estimates up to 70 million sharks are killed for serving the dish based on their fins each year. According to the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Office, Spain was the top exporting country between 2006-2010, followed by Singapore, Taiwan and Indonesia in changing rankings.
There are no exact figures on how much shark fins are brought into Hong Kong each year. The foundation gives a rough estimate of fins worth 2.6 billion Hong Kong dollars (378 billion won) for 2010, numbers the foundation uses with caution, says its member Rachel Vickerstaff. She notes that the shark fin trade is "completely unregulated and therefore no reliable trade statistics are available."
Activists say the trend has been changing this year with businesses as well as the government in China changing their policies toward shark fin consumption. Large Hong Kong-based hotel chains such as the Island Shangri-La and the Peninsula have taken the dish off the menu from January this year. Wedding banquets in many venues in China nowadays offer discounts if the ordered menu does not include shark fin soup.
Companies such as Citi Bank Hong Kong have announced they will no longer offer the dish. For Citi Bank, a campaign in 2010 that gave a 15 percent discount on shark fin soup when using one of its credit cards turned into a major PR disaster as discussions on Facebook went viral and the company saw itself struggling with an image problem.
In July, the Chinese government announced it will stop serving shark fin soup at official banquets.
Shark fin soup, a delicacy that fetches around 115,000 won (US$101) a bowl, is by far not a tradition in Korea similar to that in China. It is served mainly at high-end venues like multi-starred hotels such as Lotte and Shilla, where Taiwanese chef Hu Deok-juk first introduced the menu to Korea in 1987.
"Shark hunting does not happen on a large scale in Korea," says Choi Yoon, a shark expert at Kunsan University in Korea, but in a few regions along the nation's coasts, shark meat is used in ancestral rites.
When hotel chains in Hong Kong decided to remove the dish from their menus this year, however, Korean hotels and their non-reaction have become fodder of controversy. KAAP announced that it was considering targeting its protest at the country's luxury hotels that still service the dish, and in May, the group went ahead and staged demonstrations in front of Lotte Hotel in downtown.
Lotte as well as the Shilla declined to comment, citing sensitivity of the matter. Lotte's PR manager Song Ji-young said the hotel has no official stand on the issue although the management is aware of the protest.Lee Sun-hwa, the PR manager at Shilla, said "the global discussion over the controversy is also becoming well known here" and that she is not ready to make any official statement at this point.
Silence from hotels like Shilla, whose mother company presents itself as environment friendly, has drawn criticisms.
In a press release on the opening of the Yeosu Expo 2012, Samsung said it aims to emphasize "the importance, for individuals, companies and nations, of coexisting harmoniously with nature to protect the Earth."
Lee of the KAAP has a clear perspective toward the company's official stand. "A company serving the food while promoting itself as environmentally friendly is ridiculing the entire country," he says.
KAAP has published on its Web site a list of hotels that serve the dish in their restaurants, which include foreign chains like Hilton and Hyatt. For Lee, the case is very clear: More needs to be done in Korea to protect sharks.
According to Choi of Kunsan University, the reason why "there are no projects to preserve sharks in Korea" is because of a lack of shark researchers and scientists. Environmental activists go a step further and speak of Korea acting in contrast to the message of harmony with the sea at the Yeosu Expo. They say the country is falling behind other parts of the world, especially when it comes to the banning of shark finning.
In the summer of 2011, California joined Hawaii, Washington and other U.S. states and prohibited the possession and trade of shark fins. Taiwan responded in 2011 to no longer permit imports of shark parts. Also the European Union, the largest exporter of marine products, decided in March 2012 to prohibit finning at sea.
Choi says the signs are not all bleak.
"The (South Korean) government examined the issue of consumption of shark in order to follow the international trend," he said. The Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries on Aug. 11 last year published the Korean translation of a U.N. document introducing measures to protect sharks. This is a step in the right direction, Choi says.
"Sharks are on top of the food chain in the world's oceans. If (the chain) is interrupted, it will damage the ecological balance and also harm mankind," he emphasizes. (Yonhap)