Once upon a time in Singapore, the shark’s fin soup you have at wedding banquets came from no further than the waters of Pasir Panjang.
In fact, sharks were so abundant in our coastal waters that they posed a threat to seafarers. In 1909, shipwrecked passengers were mauled by sharks when the French liner La Seyne sank near Bataan island, presently known as Batam.
Nowadays, the only Singaporean sharks you’ll ever see live inside a tank, courtesy of our tourism board. They’re highly endangered in the Philippines and they’re almost gone from Malaysia, where sharks can be found in a grand total of 4 locations.
This is the battle that Jonn Lu took up six years ago. After a life-changing swim with Hammerheads in Borneo, the Singaporean scuba veteran was heartbroken to see the complete disappearance of sharks from our region’s dive sites.
It was cruel irony jumping into ‘’Shark Cove’’, only to experience an empty namesake.
Thus, the 46-year-old veteran of the creative industry joined Shark Savers Hong Kong as their very first volunteer in 2010, helping to fight against a main culprit behind shark extinction: shark’s fin soup, the staple of every lavish Chinese wedding and reunion dinner.
Dismantling Ming Dynasty traditions did not make him a popular man, foremost with his own business-oriented family, who took the dish at business gatherings. In his father’s words, Jonn was wasting his time as ‘Chinese people are never going to stop eating shark’s fun’.
Undeterred, Jonn moved on to the public-at-large, an experience that proved no easier. At some of his presentations, shark’s fin traders would appear and heckle him with accusations that he was destroying a family livelihood that had endured for 3 or 4 generations.
To them, he would reply: “I’m sorry to hear that your family is doing badly, but I have to make a choice between saving your family’s bread-and-butter and saving our marine ecosystem for everyone.’’ As apex predators, the disappearance of sharks from the oceans would throw the ecosystem into chaos.
Unlike campaigns that originated from the West, Jonn’s idea for Shark Savers eschewed the shock factor of gory animal cruelty images for a campaign that put its faith in the decency of ordinary folks. The result was its now-famous ‘I’m FINished with FINS’ campaign, which trusted that consumers would do the right thing once they learnt how they were abetting shark extinction.
“It’s not an angry protest, but a statement of personal choice. Rather than shaming and coercing people, we wanted to empower them to make the right choice and an informed choice,’’ Jonn explained.
With shark’s fin, there was also a question of social acceptance. Voice your moral opposition at a Chinese banquet and you’d likely be told: Don’t waste food. You might as well eat it since it’s already dead.
“We wanted to make it socially acceptable to say no. For that we tried to harness the power of key opinion leaders. It doesn’t matter if you’re a blogger, a radio DJ, a celebrity or a business owner — so long as you were a voice that people looked up to.”
With no funds to speak of, it was remarkable how the campaign took flight. After Jonn got actor Hossan Leong onboard, the latter reached out to his friends and more celebrity faces, like DJ Jean Danker and Courts CEO Terry O’Connor, came to endorse the initiative.
As word spread, the garage effort snowballed, from a fashion photographer volunteering to shoot for the billboards to National Geographic offering advertising slots on its channels to air the campaign.
Despite being a pro bono effort lacking the war-chest of larger NGOs, I’m FINished with FINS was a shot heard around Asia.
The campaign reached 45 million people every day, and within a year of its launch, shark fin trade in Hong Kong fell by 50%. In Singapore, trade levels were down by a third.
Even the grassroots and business and government sectors joined in the effort. Chong Pang and Canberra constituencies came onboard, pledging to stop serving shark’s fin at official functions. Many major hotel groups like Hilton, Hyatt and Fullerton have also since removed shark fin soup from the lucrative wedding packages.
According to the Fullerton Hotel, the customer response has been highly positive, with wedding couples favouring sustainability over tradition. In place of shark’s fin, there are now alternatives made with more sustainable ingredients like abalone or crabmeat.
Today, shark’s fin consumption is down and almost out. In an October 2016 survey conducted by WWF in Singapore and Malaysia, 8 out of 10 people who were interviewed said they would not consume Shark’s fin. The remaining 20% said they intended to cut back on their consumption.
As fate would have it, his own family has also stopped serving shark’s fin because those who attend the banquets are now conscientious in voicing their opposition.
“It’s very heartening. It’s almost like faith in humanity restored. What we’re witnessing is a cultural shift happening in real time. If we can do this for Sharks, it gives you hope that we can do same for ivory, black bears and other endangered species.”
Despite the great results, some establishments persist in serving the soup because margins are high and because customers demand it. Even so, Jonn is confident that Singaporeans will eventually come around to the ecological necessity of abstention.
So what should we do this Chinese New Year?
“Don’t make an ass out of yourself by shouting or protesting. Just avoid it and share with everyone what you know about shark conservation. Let them come to their own conclusions,” Jonn suggested.