Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - WildAid's shark fin soup boycott not for Cambodia

WildAid's shark fin soup boycott not for Cambodia

WildAid's shark fin soup boycott not for Cambodia

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As environmentalists and fishermen clash throughout Asia over the toothy issue of

shark fin soup, in Cambodia's restaurants, it seems, the customer is still always

right. And in most cases it's a well-heeled Asian customer out to impress.

Dried shark fins on display in a Chinese delicatessen. Their popularity angers environmentalists.

Driven by the booming number of affluent regional tourists, upscale restaurants in

Phnom Penh have no bones about serving up the controversial delicacy.

Shark fin soup is an ancient Asian status symbol. But what was once considered fit

for emperors is now a deal-closing, eyebrow-raising gesture of respect for businessmen

bent on conspicuous consumption.

As Asia's economies boom, so too does the number of wealthy merchants with a penchant

for fin - and the growing demand has angry activists gnashing their teeth.

In Thailand, the environmental group WildAid won a libel suit launched in an attempt

to halt the NGO's campaign on what it says are the health risks and environmental

consequences of the soup.

In Hong Kong, entertainment giant Disney was obliged to announce it would not be

serving shark fin soup at its Asian theme park following an eviscerating campaign

by environmental groups.

And two weeks ago, at a WildAid-sponsored event in China, NBA basketball superstar

Yao Ming, who once played for the Shanghai Sharks, swore off the dish saying, "Endangered

species are our friends."

But in Cambodia, it seems WildAid has bigger fish to fry.

"There is no campaign [against shark fin soup] at all in Cambodia," said

Suwanna Gauntlett, country director of WildAid and a founder and board member of

the organization. "Bear paw soup is more popular here."

Intra-Asian tourism has become increasingly important to Cambodia's tourist industry.

Asian visitors first accounted for well over half of Cambodian tourism in 2003 according

to the Ministry of Tourism's statistical report yearbook. And wealthy Asian tourists

are devouring shark fins in their droves.

"Only foreigners eat the soup," said Kim Ngon, 60, manager of Heng Lay

restaurant in Chruoy Changvar. "Most Cambodians don't have the money to buy

it - but if you compare the price of shark fin soup here to in Singapore or Malaysia

it is much cheaper and the taste is not that different."

This trend is in line with new patterns of shark fin soup consumption in Thailand,

said Steve Gasket of WildAid Bangkok.

"Thailand is a tourist destination," Gasket said. "Taiwanese and mainland

Chinese tourists can buy shark fin soup far cheaper in Thailand than at home and

now there are many tourists, busloads of them, coming through."

This Asia-wide penchant for shark fin has drawn WildAid's ire for several reasons.

"Sharks are endangered," Galster said. "And there is a lot of cruelty

involved in the process of finning sharks."

Finning is a practice where the fins of sharks are sliced off on the fishing trawlers,

then the shark, still alive, is flung back into the ocean to face a slow but certain

death.

Experts say the practice has increased because shark fin soup has recently re-emerged

as a status symbol in many Asian societies. This has contributed to an alarming depletion

of the global shark population.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) conservatively estimates that 856,000

tons of shark and its cousins, rays and skate, were caught in 2003. This is triple

the quantity caught 50 years ago.

Shark fins have long been a highly prized delicacy in Asia and are mentioned in writings

from China's Ming Dynasty as early as the 14th Century. They were often listed as

articles of tribute when officers of the coastal regions visited the emperors in

the imperial court. Because so little is obtained from such a large fish, fins have

been perceived as noble, precious, and fit for the tables of the emperor.

The purported health benefits, as documented by old Chinese medical books, ascribe

the soup restorative properties. It is believed by aficionados to be beneficial to

vital energy, kidneys, lungs, bones and many other parts of the body, said an FAO

report on shark use, marketing and trade.

WildAid says such benefits are mythical. Shark fin soup is a status symbol, not a

nutritional supplement, Gasket said.

"You are being ripped off," he said. "It is not the shark fin itself

that has much nutritional value, it is the broth. The FAO did a study saying there

is not much more nutritional value to the soup than an egg."

Nutritional or not, shark fin soup is highly prized. In Phnom Penh the Sunway, Le

Royal and InterContinental all offer a variety of shark fin dishes, but only by special

request and at a price that would deter most. One cup of "Superior" shark

fin soup with bean sprouts comes with a hefty $50 price tag at the Xiang Palace Restaurant

at the InterContinental.

Across the Chruoy Changvar bridge at the Heng Lay Restaurant, shark fin soup is a

little less expensive - just $20 a bowl. Restaurant manager Ngon voiced suspicion

that customers shell out to impress, rather than because they believe in the purported

health benefits of the soup.

"In my opinion this soup does not have the health-improving properties it is

renowned for," he said. "It tastes normal, but the wealthy order it to

prove they can buy such an expensive food."

Galster says customers are not only being ripped off, but they could be endangering

their health. Sharks, as top oceanic predators, are likely to accumulate high levels

of mercury. This can pose serious health risks, particularly for women of childbearing

age, yet there is little information on these risks available to Asian consumers,

he said.

"The consumer has a right to know," he said. "We are trying to inform

people, and are asking them to stop eating it. In 2004 WildAid won a libel case against

the Thai Restaurant Agency which had accused us of lying about how shark fins were

obtained and about the levels of mercury in the soup."

He aid the global fishing industry is bypassing the attempts of various countries

to curtail shark fishing.

"The fishing is very self regulated; there is hardly any enforcement on the

high seas," he said. "Every time a country polices its coastline, a little

more of the fishing industry migrates - rather like 'capital flight' within the garment

industry when manufacturers uproot their operations and head to new countries as

regulations in one place tighten and costs increase."

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