The NBA Player Who Saved Shark Populations
Shark fin soup has been a Chinese delicacy for centuries. Making it is messy business.
The shark fin isn’t just one part of many salvaged from the animal’s body during the butchery process. Instead, fishermen go out to sea, catch a shark, cut off the fin, then throw the fish back into the water alive. Now unable to swim, it slowly suffocates or starves. Meanwhile, the fishermen repeat the process over and over till their boat’s full of fins.
This kills a huge number of sharks for only a tiny amount of meat. That would be a bad way of hunting any animal, and it’s an especially bad way of treating sharks, which take a long time to reproduce and grow up. Fishermen kill 100 million sharks a year by finning them—not by catching them and chopping the whole thing up for food, but just by finning them.
And yet things are looking up. Demand for shark fins plummeted in China this past decade, and a big part of that is thanks to Yao Ming.
You might not have heard much about Yao Ming since he retired from the NBA in 2011, but he remained a huge celebrity in China (the biggest Chinese celebrity of all, by some estimates). After moving back to China, he partnered with the American organization WildAid on campaigns to get Chinese people to quit shark fin soup.
“Oh, a celebrity awareness campaign,” some of you are now saying, rolling your eyes. “Yeah, I’m sure that’s gonna make a difference.” But it did—shark fin soup consumption dropped some 60 percent in the first two years of the campaign and kept falling after that. Awareness, surprisingly enough, was the actual issue here. Before Yao Ming’s campaign, few people who ate the soup knew what shark finning entailed, and most didn’t know that shark fin soup contained shark fins at all.
See, shark fin soup isn’t called “shark fin soup” in China. The name translates as “fish wing soup,” and while some other fish species are also prone to overfishing, killing most fish isn’t as big a deal as killing a shark. A tuna, for example, takes just three years to mature, while a shark might not mature until it turns 30. Also, before Yao Ming’s campaigns, a lot of Chinese diners who did know fins came from sharks thought it was a sustainable and humane process. They thought you’d snip off a shark’s fin, mercifully return it to the water, and then the shark would grow the fin right back.
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Top image: Keith Allison