Less Emotion, More Information: How Talking About Shark’s Fin in Singapore Needs to Change
Photography by Zachary Tang

Having spent 13 years as a businessman in the seafood trading industry, Yio Jin Xian is somewhat of a well-known personality in local media.

Amongst other media outlets, his interviews have been featured on both The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao (not a sponsored trip). However, the attention he gets is almost never positive.

“When the topic of shark fishing articles surface and people share them; there are the usual comments about how we traders/shark fishermen should have our arms cut off to know the pain sharks go through,” he says.

Once, someone even threatened to burn down their company’s shophouse if he were to continue his business. He shares, “The place means a lot to us because it’s where my grandfather first started out.”

Jin Xian at his family's warehouse.
These threats did not appear from nowhere. In recent years, WWF’s massive campaign to ban shark’s fin has pushed the seafood industry into the spotlight. Debates surrounding overfishing, combined with images and videos of sharks having their fins cruelly cut off before their bodies are thrown back into the oceans not only sparked a fall in demand, but also a new wave of anger towards shark’s fin traders and fishermen.

As a reflection of how big this issue has gotten, Member of Parliament (MP) Louis Ng called, in January, for the complete ban of shark’s fin from all public service events.

Jin Xian takes it all in stride. Despite the abhorrence for his business, he continues to be one of the more prominent faces of the industry.

He says, “If you don’t put a face on it, [people will continue to] think that we are some evil corporation who’s just trying to fish the oceans dry.”

Believe it or not, local seafood companies aim to keep their businesses going, and that means keeping stocks sustainable. Jin Xian’s company, Chin Guan Hong, is certified under the Marine Stewardship Council, an independent non-profit international organisation which sets the global standard for sustainable fishing.

This is indicative of their compliance with standards regarding both sustainable fishing and the traceability of seafood. Jin Xian works closely with the AVA (and soon, the Singapore Food Association), updating them regularly on their operations, and their compliance with the regulations of CITES.

He asserts that seafood trading companies in Singapore are trying their very best to make sure they obtain products from fisheries that are sustainable.

Shark's fin being processed.
This is where a bit of scepticism seeps in: what exactly are ‘sustainable fisheries’?

For now, these are fisheries that have efficient management systems and are transparent with their operations, often located in more developed countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the USA, and Japan.

They set yearly quotas on the seafood they catch. If there are years during which they are not able to fish as much seafood as usual, they inform their clients about it.

They are regularly checked by local authorities, who then publish detailed reports that are publicly available.

And, because everyone is particularly worried about this, they fish entire sharks, as live-finning is no longer allowed by law in most developed countries with fishing industries.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

“What I’ve been strongly trying to advocate is that seafood has to have quota management systems and these systems cannot be privately managed. They’ve got to be publicly managed assets,” Jin Xian says.

If private companies and individual sellers are able to buy and sell seafood products, the problem of overfishing still remains, or may even worsen.

In addition, individual sellers are difficult to track, which means that sources—and the methods of fishing they use—will become even more dubious.

He explains that it has to be a system that is managed by multiple governments (coming together) and independent services that don’t have “skin in the business”. This way, he says, it would fair and just.

“So you have the government agencies managing businesses, businesses adhering to rules and regulations and providing feedback. And civil and environmental groups providing a third party or independent verification.”

The solution, in essence, has to be multifaceted with all stakeholders involved. And Jin Xian insists that the shark’s fin ban is not a comprehensive enough solution to tackle overfishing.

The reason? Shark’s fin is only part of the story.

He says, “The [anti-shark’s fin] campaign has been very successful, so successful that the other products on the dining table are facing pressures. A Chinese banquet has to have a certain value, and if you take away a certain dish, then something else will have to take its place, and the pressures are pushed towards [other dishes].”

In addition, shark meat is both commonly and regularly consumed across the world. The usage of the entire shark is a business decision—shark meat can be sold to different countries as it is an integral part of many cuisines. Reduced demand for only the fin of the sharks does not do much, because sharks will still continue to be fished for other parts of their body.

These reasons, as well as the very possible threat of illegal markets, suggest that bans cannot be the only solution.

On his part, Jin Xian is telling this to anyone who’s willing to listen.

Sometimes, he takes it further. He coordinated and ran operations on a trip which brought Lianhe Zaobao reporter Lee Lay Ming to Spain and Taiwan, allowing her to observe how suppliers fish for seafood. On another occasion, he did the same for a team of students from Temasek Polytechnic, who took a trip to Australia to see for themselves how the fishing was done locally.

(Both these projects were organised by the Marine and Land Products Association (MPA), but they were not paid campaigns. MPA had no editorial discretion over the videos that Zaobao and the TP students produced)

Jin Xian’s efforts in outreach earned him an unlikely friend in Kathy Xu, founder of The Dorsal Effect.

Like many, Kathy was incensed when she saw images and videos of sharks being live-finned. Despite her anger, she was willing to talk to stakeholders of the seafood industry, one of them being Jin Xian himself.

Kathy recalls, “He brought a friend along who was trying to do the barcoding of fish, [to ensure the] traceability of fish. He wanted us to know that he really does believe in traceability and sustainability.”

Interacting with stakeholders provided Kathy with a better understanding of how local seafood companies operate. Eventually, she concluded that while she understands and supports the call to ban shark’s fin soup, the ban itself is nowhere near enough.

At the warehouse.
Jin Xian with his colleagues.
Like Jin Xian, Kathy suggests that rather than focusing too much on reducing demand for sharks, sustainable management is the more effective way to go, and the first step forward is to have more accurate methods of tracking our seafood sources.

“When you import something from another country, there’s a certain thing that you have to label the item as, and they are called HS Codes. In Singapore, our HS Codes are very general. You won’t have [labels] like ‘blue shark’ [or] ‘hammerhead shark’; it will just be ‘shark’ or ‘shark meat’.”

While such systems make it easy to import seafood, Kathy thinks that there must be a more stringent way of marking their imported goods.  She travels down to Jurong and Senoko fishing ports twice a month to observe shipments of sharks and rays, and concludes that more information needs to be provided.

The exact location of the fishery source, as well as exact fishing methods, will go a long way towards helping authorities figure out how these fisheries can be regulated properly.

She says, “If we could regulate fisheries, that could be the better solution in terms of ensuring that there’s still enough sharks [left] in the ocean.”

That said, regulation is one thing; Kathy has a message for individuals too: start questioning all of the seafood we eat.

She explains, “People who say no to [shark’s fin] tend to be a really niche group, or the group that said no would probably say no to shark’s fin soup, and then still eat other things like [the Atlantic] bluefin tuna, which is also a problem.”

“There are probably people who say, ‘I don’t eat shark’s fin soup’, but they still are eating shark meat, and they probably don’t know they’re eating it. For example, there’s this shark meat lor mee place in Tiong Bahru—in fact I think any lor mee that has fish meat in it tends to include shark meat. Fish and chips usually contain shark meat as well. So, if people continue eating shark thinking that it’s fish, but say no to shark fins, that doesn’t make sense.”

The shark’s fin ban, while coming from a place of good intentions, only tackles one part of the issue. Most of us know this, but powerful imagery found everywhere online has prompted us to act based solely on our emotions.

Jin Xian insists that the shark’s fin ban is not a comprehensive enough solution to tackle overfishing.
If you are unknowingly eating shark meat or other types of unsustainable seafood, the problem still persists. You still contribute, despite your hearty claims about not eating shark’s fin soup.

The problem of unsustainable fishing is part of a larger system that requires proper and efficient management. As individuals, we control demand, which means we have the responsibility to look at what we consume and decide if it is what we want.

So start using logic and information, not emotions, to guide your choices. Question what you put in your mouths, not only with regards to shark products, but all seafood. After all, any food product that has mass demand will be mass produced.

Regardless of whether you are a diehard conservationist or a person who must eat their seafood no matter what; whether you choose to reduce your intake of seafood or couldn’t care less about the situation, an efficient management system is a solution for sustainability and for supplying our demand for seafood in the long run.

So, why not? Let’s have our cake and eat it.

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