Curbing China's appetite for rare species

Published on
October 31, 2014

Consumption of high-priced imported seafood is becoming “progressively more common” alongside rising local incomes, according to a study of consumption trends in Beijing which also identifies subtle ways in which Chinese consumers can be guided to more sustainable seafood choices.

Campaigners could further cut China’s consumption of endangered so-called luxury seafood species by focusing on the use of dangerous chemicals. Cyanide, for example, is used to capture fish species such as rare grouper and Napoleon wrasse, according to Australian academic Michael Fabinyi. He does extensive field research to assess the impact of Chinese social practices such as banqueting on the consumption of rare coral species like Napoleon wrasse, which costs upwards of USD 600 (EUR 477)/kg in Beijing restaurants.

Restaurant managers and consumers in China are largely unaware of the large quantities of antibiotics and tranquilizers used in transporting the fish into mainland China, according to Fabinyi. Likewise, consumers are unaware that wild fish caught in coral reefs are held in grow-out cages in China, which often suffer from poor hygiene and antibiotics use.

Fabinyi’s research follows on from an apparent slump in the consumption of shark’s fins in greater China — a result of a sustained campaign by conservationists but also the campaign against official corruption being pursued by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“Advertisements [Wild Aid adverts featured retired basketballer Yao Ming, one of China’s most recognizable celebrities] dramatically raised awareness of the links between restaurant consumption and the declines in shark stocks,” with high-end hoteliers like the Shangri La group taking shark fins off its menus in greater China.

Such conservation efforts could now be trained on similarly at risk species according to Fabinyi, who noted prices for wild mouse grouper at USD 474 (EUR 377)/kg and leopard coral grouper at USD 316 (EUR 251)/kg in Beijing seafood restaurants which profit from a keenness among Chinese businessmen to serve rare, expensive fish to guests. “Ordering fish at the price of 80 or 90 RMB (USD 13 or 14.72, EUR 10 or 11.70)is not suitable for a business banquet,” he quotes one restaurant manager as saying. Whereas lower-income Chinese family banquets typically spend RMB 50-150 (USD 8.18-24.54, EUR 6.50-19.50) per person the business and government banquets typically average between RMB 300-500 (USD 49.08 to 81.80, EUR 39 to 65) per person, excluding alcohol costs, according to Fabinyi. He quotes a chef he interviewed as saying: “Rich people eat seafood. Those who are not so rich just eat freshwater fish.” Popular freshwater species include Mandarin fish and perch.

A shift away from shark’s fin consumption here meanwhile has resulted in an increase in Chinese consumption of sea cucumber. This, believes Fabinyi, highlights the potential for substitution of particular types of seafood with other, more sustainable options. The shift from shark fins shows consumption of such endangered species is “not necessarily an inflexible, unalterable tradition but a social practice that is subject to change.”

An ongoing crackdown on official corruption being pursued by Xi Jinping has produced a 35 percent fall in high-end restaurants’ business and a “significant decrease” in consumption of luxury seafood species like Napoleon wrasse. However, consumption of premium seafood in banquets will continue to grow, says Fabinyi, due to continuously-growing Chinese disposable incomes.

Consumption of live reef fish, lobsters and sea cucumbers continues to grow while that of abalone and shark’s fin has dropped.

Importantly, notes Fabinyi, “awareness and interest in sustainability and traceability remains relatively low…more important themes for Beijing consumers at banquets in choosing seafood were social status and prestige; the issue of food safety and quality, and health and nutrition with an emphasis on freshness.”

He also suggests it’s worth researching the “potential role of full-cycle aquaculture and improved traceability mechanisms” for China’s seafood market.

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