Wildlife Group Urges Consumers to Avoid Eating Endangered Species for Chinese New Year

As people across Asia gear up for sumptuous lunar New Year banquets, an international wildlife group is calling on Chinese consumers to start the year of the pig guilt free. The activist group Traffic wants consumers to think twice about what they eat, as the food could be from endangered species. Claudia Blume reports from Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is the world's largest market for live reef fish, importing about 15,000 tons a year. Around the city, restaurants feature bubbling tanks carrying seafood such as grouper or humphead wrasse, which can cost as much as $100 per kilo.

This restaurant owner says reef fish are very popular at banquets because they are big and red, an auspicious color for Chinese.

Reef fish is in particularly big demand around Chinese New Year. The word 'fish' in Mandarin Chinese sounds the same as 'surplus', and many Chinese believe that by eating fish, the New Year will be plentiful.

Timothy Lam, who works for the wildlife group Traffic in Hong Kong, says consumers should realize that their culinary cravings are decimating reef fish populations around Southeast Asia. The demand of diners in Hong Kong and China for live fish also encourages fishermen in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines to use explosives to stun but not kill.

"Another problem is that some of the fishing methods used have some negative effect on habitats, like the use of cyanide and explosives has a bad effect on coral reefs, the habitat of reef fish," he noted.

Stocks are also plummeting of other species traditionally eaten during the lunar New Year period. Traffic wants consumers to avoid or carefully source foods such as abalone, sea cucumber and shark's fin.

The group also urges consumers not to buy the rare facai moss, which sounds like 'getting rich' in Chinese. Lam says the harvesting of the moss, traditionally used in soups, has turned millions of acres of grasslands into deserts in China.

Craig Kirkpatrick, Traffic's regional director for East Asia, says he hopes to raise people's awareness.

"We are hoping that by alerting consumes of these problems, with some of these luxury food items, that they will think before they buy," he said.  "Right now there is often honestly very little information about whether it's sustainable or unsustainable trade in these wild life commodities. But as people think more about this, ask their suppliers more about this, it's going to become part of the dialogue, part of day-to-day life."

Rare and often endangered species have long been delicacies in China, especially in the southern provinces. They are often used at banquets to show off a host's wealth, or eaten on special occasions such as the lunar New Year. As incomes have risen in recent years, so has consumption of these foods.

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