Claudia Li is one amazing young woman – leading the charge for sharks. Founder of Shark Truth, she is also a shark angel, working tirelessly on their behalf. As a first generation Chinese-Canadian, Claudia is in a unique position to build champions from within the community who will fight for sharks – and the environment. Like Claudia, the Shark Angels believe this is a world issue – not a cultural one – and are thrilled to call her one of our own. Read her story, about her organization and more about shark fin soup – from someone who grew up eating it. We are inspired by this angel, and we know you will be too.
Claudia Li, the 25 year-old founder of the nonprofit Shark Truth, is a first generation Chinese-Canadian, who grew up eating shark fin soup, traditionally served at weddings and birthday banquets. As a child, Claudia’s grandmother taught her to value a life lived in harmony and balance. But a few years ago, when she watched a documentary on shark finning, Sharkwater, she realized she’d been an unwitting participant in the horrific global fin industry, which kills nearly 73 million sharks a year just for their highly lucrative fins. As a result nearly 23 pelagic sharks and rays are in danger of extinction. Today, as a part of Shark Truth’s Fin Free wedding campaign, Claudia helps to launch contests in which couples, who’ve agreed to not serve shark fin soup on their special day, can win big ticket prizes. As Claudia works to promote awareness of this wasteful and ecologically devastating practice, she’s determined to honor her grandmother’s legacy, saving sharks, one bowl at a time. Claudia works closely with the Shark Angels and United Conservationists in their FinFree campaign as well.
Article by Christine Gordon
Shark Angels: Why don’t we start with you telling us more about what led you to get involved with the issue of shark finning? How does Shark Truth address the problem?
Claudia Li: I always cared about recycling and conservation, but I never thought critically about environmental issues. I’d asked myself, if I want to protect the environment, besides recycling and buying a hybrid car, what else can I do? A friend of mine was writing a paper on conservation, and she asked me if I drank shark fin soup. When I said “yes,” she didn’t attack me, instead she asked me if I knew about the plummeting shark population. We talked, and I realized that I’d never asked myself how the soup got on the table. I felt really ignorant, but I also felt motivated. I thought, if I don’t know about this issue, and I’m a person who cares about sustainability, than there are probably a lot of people who need to know. I decided to do something about it. I felt there was a major lack of culturally informed campaigns on this issue. Most attacked or targeted the Chinese community as the enemy, and didn’t explain the issue in a way that would empower people and bring action. There’s only so much blame and shame you can do before you turn people off. I thought we’d do much better by leaving the door open for dialogue.
SA: Who has been your biggest influence?
CL: My parents and my grandmother were immigrants from Hong Kong. My grandmother took care of me when my parents were at work. I have a lot of memories of her, one of which is going to restaurants with her where I’d order piles of chicken feet. One day when I was in school, the teacher asked us all to name our favorite foods. The kids called out pop, candy, chips, and popcorn! I said “oh, I love chicken feet!” The kids looked at me weird and made fun of me. I went home and asked my grandmother, “Why do we eat this weird stuff?” She looked at me, and said, “Claudia this is something you should be very proud of. In the Chinese culture when an animal is killed for food we eat every single part of it.” From her, I learned to not be wasteful. She taught me to respect harmony and balance in nature. We have to work hard to protect our community and our planet, so that future generations have a shot at life. If my grandmother were alive today, and if she knew how shark fin soup got on her table, she’d say, “Shark fin soup makes no sense.” When my grandmother passed away a lot of the values that she taught me stood out in front of me and said, “Hey Claudia, what are you going to do about this?” So, there were two things that drove me in the beginning: I felt ignorant about the problem, and, at the same time, I cared about the legacy that my grandmother left me. Her beliefs inspire me to take action.
SA: What is Shark Truth’s core message?
CL: In our message we highlight that most of our parents came to Canada, and the United States, to give us a better life. We say that because our parents worked so hard to give us a life of opportunity, it’s really our responsibility to make sure that there’s something that lasts for the next generation. I think that message resonates with folks because they feel empowered and they take on a sense of responsibility, versus a message of shame or of having to change. Our philosophy is to build champions from within the community who will fight for the environment.
SA: How has being a woman, and what other factors have affected your work with the community and as the founder of Shark Truth?
CL: What I’ve noticed is a lot of the people who work in the field of shark conservation are women. I think women are naturally good story tellers and that’s helped us. At the same time, in traditional Chinese culture, which is still pretty patriarchal, being female means it’s harder for me to convince elders of what we’re trying to do. It’s also tough for us because the members of Shark Truth are young and for this reason some people see us as a risky investment. Lastly, as members of the Chinese-Canadian community we recognize that the Chinese consumer and community can play a fundamental role in creating change. We try hard not to communicate xenophobic messages. We know that we’re not the only culprit- it’s not just the Chinese community- with shark finning, so to speak. There are the fisherman, the wholesalers, the retailers, the politicians, and huge international bodies that regulate fishing. We want to make sure all people are aware of the issue.
SA: Do you have mentors or other Chinese women working in this field who’ve helped you to navigate the terrain?
CL: I have a mentor, Karen Tam Wu, who sits on Shark Truth’s advisory board. I used to work with her at ForestEthics where I was her Communications Officer. She helps Shark Truth with our organizational and campaign strategies, and she’s helping me to develop my leadership skills. As a conservationist, who also comes from a Chinese background, she’s had success with conservation that has cultural significance and implications. She has a lot of experience in campaigning, but her community is very different. Her work at ForestEthics is with First Nations and the Canadian government. I don’t have a female Chinese mentor who is working on Chinese cultural issues to create change and therefore, I’m figuring out a lot of this on my own. It’s been a challenge, but it continues to be a rewarding process.
SA: As you’ve navigated the learning curve that comes with running a non profit what has been the inspiration and motivation behind your dedication?
CL: The motivation is my life, my family and friends. The planet doesn’t depend on us, we depend on the planet, and there are so many beautiful things to protect in this world. Our ancestors and elders worked so hard to give us the life we have, now it’s really our responsibility to carry on their legacy and make sure our future generations have sharks to see in the ocean.
SA: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found out about yourself as you’ve worked to end shark finning?
CL: I think the most interesting thing I found out is, and I alluded to it earlier, is really just I’m trying to cling on to those few stories that I do have of my grandmother. Now that I’m an adult, I’m more appreciative of all the things she did, and my parents did, to give my family a life here. A lot of my work is to carry forth the legacy of those stories and preserve the values I’ve learned about myself and my culture.
SA: Serving shark fin soup at a wedding is a way for a groom’s family to show generosity and convey success. Can you tell us how this tradition started and why shark fin was chosen?
CL: There’s the Big 4 in Cantonese cuisine: abalone, sea cucumber, shark fin and fish maw. If you’re invited to a traditional banquet, and the family is really wealthy, you’ll have all four dishes, plus other ones. The four interchangeably represent health, prosperity and that type of thing. The dish of shark fin was first created at the time of an emperor during the Sung Dynasty (AD 968) who said to his guests, “Hey, I can afford to risk the lives of my men to catch a shark and serve you this dish.” So that’s how it became this status symbol, or status of wealth, and how it became so popular, specifically at wedding banquets. Traditionally, the groom’s side of the family pays for the wedding banquet and folklore used to say that “a bride marrying into a family without shark fin soup on the table is marrying into a poor family.” Although we know now that’s not true, there’s still an expectation, much like how an American family expects to have turkey on Thanksgiving, and when it’s not there it’s like “oh what happened… like, did you cheap out?”
What I find interesting is that the Chinese culture has this virtue around sharing your fortune and being generous, and so at the wedding banquet what they’re saying is “I worked so hard and I finally got myself and my family to a place where I can share this dish with all my guests and friends.” And I think that virtue is such a beautiful thing- to be generous and giving. So what we realize is you can show generosity, but you don’t have to do it with shark fin. Instead, you can donate wedding favors, you know, two dollars per head at the table toward a cause. This shows you’re generous and worldly and that you understand issues that are going on around you and you want to help out. So, I think that this kind of perspective around how to share your fortune is changing. The problem is that a lot of people don’t even know how shark fin comes to the table. I didn’t even know it until about six months ago. Yes, it’s about status and wealth, but it’s also about generosity. What we have to do now is tell folks that there are lots of ways you can share your fortune. You can still practice a Chinese virtue that you’re proud of without wiping a species off the planet.
SA: Can you explain the latest Fin Free wedding contest and what it’s about?
CL: We’re getting our marketing materials together and we’re launching a contest where the winning couple will get to go on a six day cruise to the Galapagos, which is pretty phenomenal. We’re also partnering with Hong Kong Shark Foundation, and they’re implementing the same contest there. Our long term goal is to expand the contest internationally and create more partnerships with other conservation groups. We want to have an open source version of our contest, which means any conservation group around the world can have access to the branding, the name, the guidelines, etc. to educate consumers directly in their own geographic area. All they have to do is find the sponsors and the wedding contest entrants.
SA: What are the measurable results of Shark Truth’s past wedding contests?
CL: For almost three years now through the wedding contest we’ve diverted 10,000 bowels of shark fin, which has saved 1,000 sharks, and this year we hope to double our efforts. This was on a shoestring budget. I only started working full time in September so most of this work was done while I was working full time at ForestEthics with some pretty dedicated volunteers. We have had a big impact. Through our media work, we’ve begun to fundamentally change the way people think about sharks by linking conservation back to our own cultural ideas of preserving the planet. People are beginning to ask what decisions can I make as a consumer, and as a good citizen, to make sure we have sustainable food sources, and how can we consume in a way that’s in balance with nature and with the earth. Hearing people in the community say, “yes, this makes sense,” and “I’m not going to serve shark fin at my mom’s 90th birthday banquet,” has shown just how much the community has shifted. For me, that’s been the most rewarding.
SA: How has Shark Truth gotten other conservation groups involved and recruited people as activists from the Chinese-Canadian community?
We continue to partner with conservation groups around the world and we’re looking to get more partners in Singapore and Malaysia. In Canada we’ve supported legislation. Joanna, one of our brides from last year’s contest, was so inspired by the movement that she decided to volunteer in Toronto on the issue and eventually was hired by the city councillor who was sponsoring the shark fin ban. It’s been very meaningful for us to see how one person who entered our wedding contest has basically become a shark activist.
SA: What is Shark Truth doing on the national level in terms of legislation?
CL: A bill has been proposed by New Democrat party member of Parliament, Finn Donnelley to ban shark fin imports nationally, so that’s what’s happening on the political level, and we’re collecting signatures to build public support for this bill. In addition to the wedding contest, we’re working on a few restaurant and consumer surveys to see what people’s attitudes are toward shark fin soup, and we’re looking specifically at Chinese restaurants. In British Columbia, many Chinese restaurants have said they understand the issue, and some of them have even said they support a national shark fin ban because it would make it easier for them to explain to their customers why they don’t have it on the menu.
SA: A few months ago, we heard the great news that Hong Kong’s Shangri La restaurant chain would stop selling shark fin soup. At the same time, we hear that the Taiwanese mafia is operating unabatedly in Costa Rica- finning sharks in isolated locations within the interior and along the coast. What are your thoughts on this underground free for all?
CL: It just goes to show that shark fin is a huge market. In terms of dollars, it’s been compared to the global drug trade. Shark Truth’s work is on the demand side, and we support stakeholders- whether they’re consumers, businesses or politicians- who work for shark conservation. We take a multifaceted approach with a long-term goal of protecting sharks by stopping the shark fin trade. And with an educated community that is aware and willing to take action you’ll basically have a lower risk of any black market.
SA: What is the shark fishing situation in Canadian waters and how much shark fin is imported?
CL: At the last International Conference on the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) Canada was the only country that was against the protection of the endangered porbeagle shark. According to a 2009 Oceana report, Canada imported Seventy seven thousand kilograms (nearly 170,000 pounds) of shark fin, which is a pretty significant amount. Since shark fin comes from all over the world and it’s hard to get information about the supply chain, if you ask people at restaurants or retailers “where did this come from?” most of the employees don’t know.
SA: Is it possible to work with the middle men/importers of shark fins to find out more information on finning practices, and can they be convinced that their business practices are, not only harmful, but illogical, since shark numbers are so low that ultimately they’ll be nothing left to fin?
CL: It’s a good question. When you consider the large amount of profit they’re making, the chance of getting accurate, useful information from them is very slim, as is getting them to change their practices to import something else despite it not being a sustainable business in the long term. From a business standpoint, that’s how they make their money, and they only care about their bottom line, so we just have to keep working to raise awareness.
SA: On January 4th, President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act into law. The law protects all sharks against finning in U.S. waters except for the dogfish shark (an unfortunate exception that was made to gain North Carolina Senator Richard Burr’s vote; his state’s dogfish fishery accounts for one percent of shark fishing in U.S. waters). The law allows U.S. fisherman to bring the shark in whole. What are your thoughts on the law and its limitations?
CL: I think the law makes it a lot more difficult for the people who do the finning. They can’t cut the fins at sea and dump the shark, so it’s less profitable. They also can’t store as much. Previously they might have stored 500 fins on a boat, but now they can only bring in about 10 to 50 sharks. Despite its limitations this law shows that Obama cares about shark conservation. What I gather is that in the States, it’s effective to work on shark fin bans at the state level, and to work on shark fishing at the national level, which is similar to how we approach the issue in Canada.
SA: We see shark populations declining at astronomical rates. What has the cascade effect of losing so many sharks meant to the ecosystem and people’s livelihoods?
CL: Sharks have been around for over 400 million years and we know so little about them. In the last fifty to one hundred years their populations have dropped at really fast rates, and the overall ecological impact of such a quick drop in numbers is likely disastrous. Unfortunately, the cascade effect hasn’t been well documented- but, because they’re apex predators, you can imagine the cascade effect amplified by the many species who are endangered; currently, there are 23 pelagic sharks at risk of extinction. But we have very little information. Sharks migrate all over the world, and we don’t know a lot, about their migration patterns although we’re starting to do more tracking and collecting data. There are so many types of shark being hunted. It’s a free for all.
There’s a social and economic impact, as well. For example, in Indonesia and in other developing countries, where there’s an abundance of shark species, some fisherman have said they are no longer able to fish because the population of sharks in their area has been decimated which in turn has altered the food chain that the fishermen relied on. And also, in areas where sharks have disappeared, so has tourism- causing a loss of dollars to the local community which also brings about a negative social impact. As with any environmental issue the problems are not limited to the environment.