Making Singapore a shark’s fin-free  country

Campaigns against consumption of shark’s fin have taken centre stage this year, so much so that at the Asia Dive Expo in April, the campaign “No Shark Fins Singapore” which aims for a complete ban on the sale of shark’s fin products by 2013, was launched and supported by various like-minded non-governmental organisations (NGOs) championing shark conservation.

Faris Mokhtar speaks to World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) Singapore campaign manager Sarah Ong on the aggressive push for awareness, whether the aim of a shark’s fin-free Singapore is achievable and why the change of mentality is so darn hard.

Faris Mokhtar: Can you give some insights into the basis of your initiatives?

Sarah Ong: We launched the WWF Sustainable Seafood Campaign in 2010 promoting awareness and encouraging consumers to choose sustainable seafood which are fished and farmed responsibly. A critical part of this campaign is the Singapore Seafood Guide which categorises seafood based on the assessment of their sustainability. The three categories are: Recommended, Think Twice and Avoid. Under the “Avoid” list, we have highlighted all shark species because the population in the wild is depleting - up to 73 million sharks are culled annually, and we have a massive over-fishing problem globally.

So, we looked at the consumption issue in Singapore and initiated “Say No to Shark Fin” pledge which calls for a reduction in shark fin consumption. We have collected more than 15,000 pledges. As the next phase, we created a corporate pledge in mid-June this year for companies to pledge to have a no shark’s fin corporate dining policy.

FM: Singapore imported around 3,500 tonnes of shark’s fin in 2011, 40 per cent more than the previous year. Where are we in the list of countries which import or consume shark fin?

SO: In terms of consumption, we are behind China and Hong Kong. The thing to note is that Singapore plays an important role as a regional trading hub. This means that fins from the shark producing countries are transported to Singapore and Hong Kong where it will be dried, repackaged or canned and then shipped out to other consumer markets like China. So, we have a role to play, both as a consumer market and that we facilitate the trade of shark’s fin.

FM: It seems that since the start of the year, there has been an aggressive push on this issue, with similar campaigns by other NGOs. It’s like sort of saying that you guys are really serious about this, isn’t it?

SO: Because it is a serious global issue. The problem has escalated through the years and the number of shark species listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has grown from 15 species in 1996 to 181 species in 2011. We are talking about a 12 fold increase over the 15 years.

And if we continue to consume at this level – taking into account the growing global population plus the rising affluence of consumers in China – it means we’re removing sharks faster from the ocean than they can reproduce to replenish their numbers. Sharks reproduce slowly – sexual maturity takes up to 12 years for some species and they have very few offspring at a time. So, our consumption is driving them to the brink of extinction.

FM: But there’s always this scepticism with campaigns, whether they produce results. In your case, has any of it been effective?

SO: We have already collected 15,000 consumer pledges and though it’s still early, we are quite encouraged with initial results of the corporate pledge. We have big names like Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Jebsen & Jebsen Group and SingTel all pledging to remove shark-fin from their corporate dining policies.

Another achievement would be having Cold Storage be the first supermarket chain to completely remove shark’s fin or shark products off the shelves. They used to sell dried shark’s fin, shark fillet and the canned shark’s fin. We have been working with them on sourcing for sustainable seafood for the customers. After Cold Storage removed shark products, other chains followed suit including NTUC and Carrefour. We are encouraged by this shift in the market.

FM: Also, campaigns are known for preaching that you have to stop doing this, doing that immediately. Would it be better to encourage people to phase out such eating habits in a progressive manner opposed to asking them to immediately stop whatever they’re eating? A more sustainable measure, I suppose?

SO: Yes, expecting them to change their mindsets and beliefs overnight is very tough. We do recognise that some will take a more progressive approach but we are still urging people to stop consumption immediately because of the severity of this issue. It gets to a stage where we have a growing demand and the shark population is under threat.

FM: Public education, Singaporeans more enlightened now or is ignorance still an issue?

SO: I think there are still people who may be ignorant and therefore continue to eat shark’s fin. But we do see more awareness pertaining to environmental issues, with the younger generation being more aware and taking the lead in making a stand. There is a growing number of cases where couples chose not to serve shark’s fin soup at their wedding banquets, and that is great. We’ve received positive responses, but there are still a minority who will say, “I love my shark’s fin” or “I will not give up eating it”.

Corporations are jumping onto the bandwagon as well. There’s a growing list of hotels that have started to remove shark’s fin from their menus, and these include international hotel chains such as Shangri La, Fullerton, and recently Four Seasons have also come onboard. So, the process to enlighten people on the issue is an ongoing effort. There may never be a point where we can say, “okay, we’ve achieved our target, we can stop now.”

FM: Ground-up movement or legislation, which approach is more effective?

SO: Before one is able to get the law passed, ground-up movement is important and helps to build up momentum for legislative changes. But this does not mean to say that legislation would be less effective. Chewing gum is a classic example - we banned it and the demand dropped. Sure, you do have people buying it from across the causeway but consumption is nowhere like what it was before. There’s a big advantage in looking whether you can ban it in totality.

What’s important is that we need to let the authorities understand that there’s enough awareness and movement on the ground that if they were to make this change in legislation, it will be supported by the majority.

FM: At the Asia Dive Expo in April, the campaign “No Shark Fins Singapore” was launched with the aim of making Singapore shark’s fin-free by 2013? That seems hugely ambitious, can it be achieved?

SO: While it will definitely give impetus to the whole movement, whether we can totally eradicate consumption by 2013, it might be a challenge. I think campaigns really need more time and any movement that changes behaviour will take some time.

FM: Government’s role in Singapore. Are they passive about this, doing enough?

SO: They can certainly do more. One way is through stronger participation in CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). It’s held every two years and involves governments from 175 countries. The Singapore government, represented by the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA), can take a stronger stand by voting in favour of greater protection of more shark species from international trade. From what we understand, the government tends to take a neutral stand.

Another thing we can request is for the government ministries and agencies to take our corporate pledge. There are efforts by certain agencies not to serve shark’s fin during corporate functions and grassroots events. But a greater commitment would be for them to take the pledge and send a strong signal. If China can announce that official banquets will stop serving shark’s fin soup, why can’t Singapore government do the same?


Video: Short segment from 2006 documentary "Sharkwater"

WARNING: Video contains graphic and disturbing footage

(SingTel has a no shark's fin policy and it applies to staff hosting business lunches or dinners, as well as departments ordering gift hampers. inSing is part of SingTel.)

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