Can ‘artivism’ take shark fin soup off the menu?

Detail from artwork by PSJ Dragon76

One international group is aiming to take shark fin soup off the menu through a particular brand of what they call ‘artivism’ – we wanted to find out more…

We spoke with Pania Lincoln, Director of PangeaSeed Japan, a shark and ocean conservation NGO that on July 14th launched a new branch here in Japan. Originally founded in 2009, its members, distributed around the globe, aim to spread ecological awareness and hope that their brand of activism can both help them do that and allow you to have a little creative fun…

(above: detail from artwork by Dragon76)

Firstly, can you describe PangeaSeed’s operations?

PangeaSeed Japan is a branch of PangeaSeed, which was established in 2009 in Japan and is now based in the USA. We are very closely connected with the main branch and operate with the same base ideas, core values and goals. Also, we work together in parallel, helping each other with projects and support. PSJ was started to work locally, here in Japan, with the focus on Japan as well as the wider Asian area. Our core group consists of 10 hard-working volunteers who give their time and energy following their passion for ocean conservation.

How did your personal involvement come about?

My background is both in animal rights activism and art, which I have always endeavored to combine together. Whilst living in Japan and working with different NGOs and NPOs I met the PangeaSeed crew and I was instantly hit by their positivity and creativity. After spending more time with them I found that we shared many similar beliefs, including the use of ‘artivism’ and a positive activism.

Pania Lincoln of PangeaSeed Japan at an event in Tokyo in July

Pania Lincoln, Director of PangeaSeed Japan, at an event in Tokyo in July. The ultimate aim? Taking shark fin soup off the menu.

By the time PangeaSeed moved to their base to the USA I had become so impressed with their mission, and they way they carried it out, that I decided to open a branch here in Japan to keep their work going.

Sharks seem to get a pretty rough deal in Japan – using their fins in soup perhaps hasn’t the taboo it may have in other parts of the world. Do you see this ignorance as the main issue? What can you do about it? Why shouldn’t people eat shark fins? Can we eat shark meat?

The most financially valuable part of the shark, and a primary incentive for shark fishing, is the fin. Large numbers of sharks become victims of the barbaric practice known as shark finning. A shark is caught, usually using a longline with baited hooks, and then pulled on board where fishermen cut the fins from the shark with no anaesthetic relief. Often still alive, the shark is thrown overboard, unable to swim and in agonizing pain, then sinks to the bottom of the ocean to either drown or be eaten alive. This is not only a terribly cruel practice, but is also highly wasteful. Global shark populations are being decimated to satisfy the persistent demand for shark fin soup, a symbol of wealth.

Because of this, as well as overfishing, destructive fishing practices, trophy hunting and habitat destruction, the global populations of this important apex predator are rapidly plummeting. It is feared that sharks – which have occupied the top of the oceanic food chain for the last 450 million years – could possibly become extinct in the next decade or two. Many shark populations have declined by as much as 90%, and now represent the greatest percentage of threatened marine species on the IUCN Red List.

“A shark is caught, usually using a longline with baited hooks, and then pulled on board where fishermen cut the fins from the shark with no anaesthetic relief. Often still alive, the shark is thrown overboard, unable to swim and in agonizing pain, then sinks to the bottom of the ocean to either drown or be eaten alive.”

Shark meat and other shark products are also contributing to the alarming rate of overfishing. Sharks are highly vulnerable to overfishing because they are generally slow growing and long living, which makes them inherently vulnerable to exploitation and slow to recover from population declines.

In Japan, as with many other counties in Asia, you’re right, there isn’t the social ‘taboo’ associated with shark fin soup, which in my opinion is mainly down to lack of knowledge. I have even spoken to people who didn’t realise what was in fukahire (shark fin) soup, and definitely had no idea about the plight of sharks. Most of the time I encounter people who are willing and eager to learn about this problem, and to think about a positive future without sharks on the menu.

The question of ‘what can you do about it?’ is one that I would like to pose to you, and to everyone. What can we do about it? If education and knowledge is the key, which I strongly believe it is, let’s spread the word together! If anyone would like more information on how to spread the word, how to get involved please email me directly. I would be more than happy to help with lesson plans for ESL classes, talks at companies, film showings or information nights at embassies or social clubs or just sharing information online.

It’s not just sharks, of course. What are the other main marine issues you are focused on?

Of course, many issues in ocean conservation are connected, such as pollution and over fishing. Although while we believe in looking at many different aspects, PangeaSeed Japan is focusing on sharks to anchor our efforts. From there, we support and engage in all activities that make our oceans a healthy place.

What are your thoughts on recent events in The Hague, with Australia and Japan currently locked in a legal battle over Japan’s whaling programs?

To be perfectly honest, I would like to keep whaling as a separate issue, especially as someone who is a non-Japanese person living in Japan. To become involved in this debate, as an organisation, will at best detract from our current efforts and at worst brandish us as another ‘foreign’ group telling Japan and Japanese what to do, which is, again, getting away from the issues at hand.

There seems a very international nature to the group. How can you reach wider Japanese society?

Ocean conservation is an international issue, and we feel that an international group working in a local capacity is the best way to bridge this. We have people from all over the world, including Japan, working in an effort to save our oceans. We are hoping to reach a wider society in general, using positive activism and education as the key. In this way we hope that the wider society will come to appreciate the present situation of the oceans as one that has a direct impact on us all.

“With the power of popular opinion we endeavor to have sharks where they belong, in our oceans, not in over-priced bowls of soup.”

What kind of events can we expect to see in future? Why did you decide take this particular, rather creative direction?

(You say: “PangeaSeed Japan will be raising awareness of the plight of sharks and the oceans through volunteer activism and the various mediums of art, music, film and photography.”)

‘Artivism’ is at the core of our beliefs. Using creativity to bring awareness to this issue is not only engaging, it is also one that transcends borders. Visual arts can be enjoyed and appreciated regardless of age, gender, background or where someone is from. In this way it directly reflects our philosophy of bringing an international issue to a local level. Rather that focusing on “don’t do this, don’t do that”, engaging people though creativity is a positive process that encourages positive responses.

In the future we will be having film screenings, information booths at festivals, art exhibitions, dance parties, live music and painting events and more, keep checking our website and Facebook page for updates.

Do you see yourselves as creating awareness of the bid to take shark fin soup off the menu or more as lobbyists? Can you get your message across to the people in power, or does this require more public support?

Creating awareness is our main activity. We believe that if we educate people to respect and understand sharks and their plight we will have the critical mass needed to change the current mindset. With the power of popular opinion we endeavor to have sharks where they belong, in our oceans, not in over-priced bowls of soup.

To find out more about PangeaSeed and their mission to take shark fin soup off the menu – and more about their name – see the group’s website: www.pangeaseed.org/japan