SUMMER Palace, a restaurant tucked inside one of the capital’s most expensive hotels, offers the standard selection of Chinese delicacies: abalone, braised sea cucumber and imperial bird’s nest soup, which sells for about 700 renminbi, or more than £70, a serving. Noticeably absent, however, is a mainstay of Chinese cuisine – shark fin soup.
“We took it off our menu a while ago,” the hostess said without apology. “Environmental protection.”
Summer Palace is one of a handful of restaurants in Beijing that have heeded a decade-long conservation effort to persuade diners and business owners to eschew shark’s fin, a traditional delicacy valued more as a status symbol than for its taste.
But according to a report issued in December by a Beijing-based environmental group, the campaign, backed by some of the country’s top celebrities, has failed to persuade most restaurants and hotels to drop it from their menus.
“Shark fin soup is still an obligatory dish at business banquets and weddings,” said Wang Xue, chief coordinator of the survey sponsored by Green Beagle, which found only 17 of 249 luxury hotels in Beijing, Shenzhen and Fuzhou had stopped offering the dish. Of those that have dropped it from menus, most are multi-nationals such as Sheraton, Marriott International and Shangri-La International Hotel Management of Hong Kong.
For the growing number of shark protectionists in China, the survey results, though disappointing, were not surprising. Shark fin soup has become a lucrative source of revenue for high-end restaurants. An individual serving can cost as much as 2,000 renminbi, or about £204. At some branches of South Beauty, the only upscale Chinese restaurant chain to have stopped selling the dish, shark fin soup accounted for 20 to 30 per cent of revenues, according to Wang Yihua, a general manager for the chain, which specialises in Sichuanese cuisine.
Environmentalists have their work cut out. With millions of Chinese newly affluent each year, the dish which was once affordable to only the most privileged, is suddenly within reach. The desire to revel in that newfound wealth – and broadcast it to friends and business associates – is adding to a rapid depletion of the world’s shark population.
As many as 73 million sharks are killed every year, many for their fins, and nearly a third of shark species are threatened with extinction, according to a 2011 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ global shark conservation campaign. Because sharks sit atop the ocean food chain, their plummeting numbers have an outsize impact on the entire marine ecosystem.
Also alarming to some is the brutality: After the fins are sliced off, the sharks are often thrown into the sea to die.
Increasing concerns about the impact of shark finning have prompted governments to act. Though the practice had been banned in the United States in 2011, several states, including Hawaii, California and Washington, enacted broader laws to prohibit the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins. In 2012, Taiwan introduced new fishing laws banning shark finning, making it the first government to ban the practice in Asia. In the UK however, it is still legal.
But in mainland China, powerful trade groups like the China Hotel Association have so far been unmoved. Environmentalists have been pressing the association to withhold its “green hotel” stamp of approval from members that serve shark fin. Zhang Jingfu, assistant to the chairman of the China Hotel Association, said the group encouraged businesses to reduce sales of shark fin but was not prepared to do more.
Still, there are signs that the conservation campaign, whose most prominent advocate is the retired National Basketball Association star Yao Ming, is gaining momentum. In September, conservationists scored a major victory when Cathay Pacific Airlines announced it would no longer carry shark fin and most other shark products. Environmental groups estimate that Cathay Pacific transported up to half of the total 650 tons of shark fin imported by air into Hong Kong last year. Though Cathay Pacific’s shipments accounted for only a small fraction of the 10,200 tons of shark fin estimated to have been imported, the decision by a major airline to abandon the trade was touted by environmentalists as a bold signal to the rest of the industry in Hong Kong, which is still the world’s leading trade hub for shark fins.
Last July, the Chinese government announced a ban on shark fin soup at official banquets. Though Xinhua, the state news agency, said it would take up to three years to implement, conservation groups were heartened. In December, officials in Shanghai even allowed environmental activists to gather outside an anti-shark finning art exhibit as part of a petition drive against shark fin consumption.
Just as important, environmentalists say eating shark fin is starting to acquire a stigma among the Chinese elite.
But will such sentiment trickle down to those who keep the shark fin industry afloat: restaurants and the vast majority of consumers?
To Stanley Shea, a project coordinator at Bloom Association, a marine conservation group in Hong Kong, consumers need to understand the impact of their eating habits on the entire marine ecosystem. “People may think that shark fin soup still stands for a culinary tradition,” he said. “I would like to ask these people: Would you like to eat your tradition to extinction? Or would you like it to go on?”