Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Fiji Times: Fin it Off the Menu

Whitetip reef shark.  Photo: Angelo Villagomez
SHARKMAN Manoa Rasigatale moved an inch close to his dream - thanks to Chinese basketball superstar Yao Ming.

The recently-retired NBA giant has joined the worldwide campaign against the shark fin trade, which has pushed the ancient species to the brink of extinction.

Yao's decision is a big boost for campaigners such as the Sharkman, who is lobbying for legislation to ban the fishing of sharks in Fiji's waters.

Like the move in California to remove shark fin soup off the menu, Yao wants his fellow countrymen to stop eating this top-of-the-range dish.

After the fins are sliced off, sharks are discarded back into the ocean. Their speed diminished, maneuverability affected, they sink to the bottom where they are condemned to a slow, agonising death.

"Oqo na mate vakaloloma (this is such a pitiful death)," says Rasigatale.

"It is so sad that Fijian fishermen who are in this trade have forgotten our special relationship with the sharks.

"It is our duty to protect them just as they protect us by safeguarding the reef, which is the life of the sea and us living in the islands.

"Our forefathers protected the sharks, it is our duty to do likewise."

Shark fins from Fiji are flown to Hong Kong and transported to restaurants across mainland China and Taiwan.

Despite growing calls to ban the trade and consumption of shark fin products, demand in China has been growing rapidly as the economy booms.

1.5 million sharks are slaughtered every week to cater for this demand.

The PEW Environment Group, in conjunction with the Coral Alliance, appointed Rasigatale to create awareness, help stop the slaughter in Fiji's waters and cut off supply to the Chinese market.

Delicacies ù such as shark fin, abalone and rare birds ù are staples for a luxurious banquet in this country.

It is common practice in wealthy circles to give money in red envelopes as wedding gifts and the new couples, in return, try to provide a banquet worth the value of the large amount of money they received. They do this by serving expensive cuisine.

Some Chinese believe eating such delicacies bring long life.

Rasigatale says there is nothing nutritious in shark fin soup, "just cartilage".

In Shanghai on Thursday, Yao and British tycoon Richard Branson joined forces to get shark fin off the menu.

"Few people know the importance of sharks in maintaining the ecological balance," Yao was quoted as saying by the China Daily at the launch of the campaign.

"Nor do they realise the cruelty of the finning process.

"There is no reasonable explanation for this cruelty."

The Shanghai campaign, sponsored by conservation group WildAid, is the first high-profile-led one in marine conservation in China.

Branson told the China Daily shark fin soup was just a tradition in China.

"Those who eat shark fin soup told me they don't particularly like it," Branson, president of Virgin Atlantic Airlines, said.

"It's possible to get people to switch to other food and make the soup unfashionable."

Pacific island journalists who are part of a delegation touring China say the island region must do more to protect the ocean and its resources for their future generations.

Solomon Islander Johnson Honimae, who now works in Suva, said his people of Malaita have a special bond with the sharks.

"We don't eat sharks because they protect us," he said.

"There is some work being done to protect the ocean in the Solomons but there is more to be done."

Papua New Guinea journalist Peter Pusal said Pacific islanders need to be aware of the dangers they face if the sharks disappeared.

"Our children need to understand what they mean to the marine life cycle and we need to make sure there is legislation to ensure the survival of sharks.

"We don't eat sharks back home."

During this tour of China, he and his colleagues are wary being served shark fin soup when attending banquets.

Wu Qi, a white-collar worker in Shanghai, is planning her wedding for later this year.

"We booked the 5888 yuan per table banquet and shark fin soup is listed in all three protential menus."

Wu and her fianceé convinced their parents to serve sea cucumber, which is also exported to China from Fiji, instead.

They said their friends would be concerned about the environmental effect, especially as one of them works for Greenpeace.

A survey by the China Daily showed that some restaurants and hotels, such as the URBN Hotel Shanghai, where Yao and Branson launched the campaign, stopped serving shark fin soup.

The Dragon Hotel, a five-star hotel in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, announced it had stopped serving shark fin dishes from September 19.

It said more than 30 shark fin dishes were removed from the menu - at a big cost.

Its revenue is expected to drop by six million yuan a year.

Jin Ding Xuan, a Cantonese seafood restaurant chain in Beijing, has gone a step further by stopping all sales of live seafood from last October.

For Rasigatale, this will mean good news.

If the market diminishes, so too will the supply.

His mission is to ensure laws are in place in Fiji to ensure shark sanctuaries for his grinny, razor-sharp toothy friends of the deep.

He won't be able to easily change the appetite of the hard-to-convince Chinese. But if Yao can make a yard, so too the Sharkman.

"My job is to help deny them the shark. And my country must help."

Published in The Fiji Times on Monday, September 25, 2011

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