There’s no getting around the fact that most people have a primal fear of sharks. It doesn’t matter that only a handful of the hundreds of shark species are even dangerous to humans. Sharks were getting bad publicity decades before the 1975 release of “Jaws.”
The sad reality is that humans are a much bigger threat to sharks than they are to us. An estimated 75 million sharks are killed each year, mostly to meet the demand for shark fin soup. Humans are killing sharks at such a rapid pace that many species may soon be lost forever.
The big problem for sharks is that shark fin soup is associated with affluence in Asia, similar to caviar and French champagne. Shark fin soup is a staple menu item at Asian banquets, especially large family gatherings, weddings and dinners celebrating business deals. When the appearance of social status is combined with rapidly growing Asian economies, the end result is high consumer demand that is pushing sharks to the brink of extinction.
“When demand happens, the buying happens and the killing happens," said Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6-inch former professional basketball star, and one of the first celebrities to take a stand against the shark fin trade.
Thailand, with its large population of ethnic Chinese and millions of visitors, also represents a large market for shark fin soup, especially at high-end resorts that cater to international guests.
And so begins the tale of Fin Free Thailand. Launched in February 2013 by a group of local activists, it is a local unit of the global Fin Free organization devoted to curtailing the mass killings of sharks. USAID provided financial support through the FREELAND Foundation, a partner organization which focuses on animal trafficking and environmental issues.
The group’s strategy follows that of the anti-fur activists in the 1980s: If you make eating shark fin soup socially unacceptable, consumer demand will drop. Hotels and restaurants are approached by the group and asked to sign the pledge to go “fin free” in their kitchens. Businesses that sign the pledge are given a plaque and signage to display in their businesses and their actions are actively promoted on the group’s “Blue List” and on social media. Businesses that refuse or ignore the requests are periodically urged to do so on social media along with public warnings to potential customers that the businesses are not fin free.
Within two months, 28 of the most prestigious hotels and resorts in Thailand, including the Banyan Tree Hotel, the Shangri La and the Peninsula Hotel, signed fin-free pledges. A summer outreach effort on the resort island of Phuket netted over 30 additions to the Blue List.
“We believe that it is our responsibility, as Asia’s oldest hotel company, to no longer serve shark fin at any of our hotels,” said Katja Henke, general manager of the Peninsula Bangkok. “We can’t let sharks disappear."
By the end of September 2013, the Blue List had swelled to 79 hotels and restaurants across Thailand, including entire hotel and resort chains like the Anantara, Amari and the Four Seasons group. Businesses that sign the pledge have also received significant positive publicity.
Encouraged by the success of their hotel and resort outreach efforts, the group is now reaching out to regional airlines based in Thailand and asking them to agree not to serve shark fin soup on their flights or transport shark fins as cargo.
Last updated: March 18, 2014