SINGAPORE – As Asia’s ethnic Chinese sit down for lavish banquets to usher in the Lunar New Year, a delicacy long considered a must at celebratory meals is fast disappearing from menus and dinner tables.
A growing number of shops, restaurants and hotels have in the past few months given up selling shark fin, which in Asia is usually eaten in soup, throwing a lifeline to the marine predator that activists say is long overdue.
“Yes, we do see an increasing number of locals and international businesses saying no to shark’s fin,” said Elaine Tan, chief executive for environmental group WWF in Singapore.
“This change in attitude could be due to an increasing awareness of the plight of sharks as well as the result of many shark campaigns worldwide,” she told AFP.
About 73 million sharks are killed every year, according to WWF, and more than 180 shark species were considered threatened in 2010, compared to only 15 in 1996.
Many are slain for their fins, considered by the Chinese to be a delicacy and costing hundreds of dollars per kilo.
Soup made from the fins is a pricey yet common staple at festive occasions such as the Lunar New Year and weddings in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and countries with large ethnic Chinese populations such as Singapore.
One well-known shark-fin soup restaurant in Singapore sells the dish at Sg$20 ($16) per diner, but it can cost many times that.
“We are concerned about the environment and we have a strong corporate responsibility,” said Maria Kuhn, director of corporate communications of Shangri-La’s international operations.
The global luxury hotelier took shark fin off its menu on January 17, in a major boost to the campaign.
“The younger generation has specifically been very aware of the issue and been stepping away from using shark fin… In the long term it will be a natural progression anyway.”
In Hong Kong- the top shark-fin trading center, handling about 50 percent of the global trade—conservationists lauded Peninsula Hotels group’s decision two months ago to similarly ditch the dish.
“We are very happy to see what they have done and we believe the demand for shark-fin consumption in Hong Kong will reduce,” Stanley Shea, project coordinator at the Hong Kong marine conservation group Bloom, told AFP.
A survey by Bloom last year showed 78 percent of people in the southern Chinese city now consider it socially acceptable to leave shark-fin soup off the menu for a wedding banquet.
It is a sentiment which is gaining ground in Singapore too.
Alex Teo, 29, said he left shark fin off the menu at his wedding last year despite initial worries that guests might be disappointed.
“We were not sure if people would feel unhappy about it, but seven personal friends who, when they replied about their attendance, asked me if we could not have shark fin, so we went ahead,” he said.
“We actually wanted to remove it because we wanted to save sharks,” Teo, a banker, told AFP.
Mainland China – believed to be the world’s top consumer of shark fin – is also seeing a dip in its popularity.
Basketball superstar Yao Ming, who stopped eating shark fin five years ago, added his considerable size to the cause in September by urging others to join him and British entrepreneur Richard Branson in their abstinence.
As public awareness grows in China, there are even moves towards a ban on the trade.
Businessman delegate to the National People’s Congress Ding Liguo made the proposal, saying Beijing should lead the way because 95 percent of shark fin is consumed in the mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
TRAFFIC, an international network that monitors the trade in wildlife, said more action from Asian governments was needed.
“We see a clear shift in the public and corporate mindset away from shark-fin consumption and sale,” Elizabeth John, an official with TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, told AFP.
“Unfortunately, it’s not reflected in decision and policy making except in very few cases.”
Hazel Oakley, a representative of Shark Savers Malaysia, which lobbies for a shark-fishing ban, said: “The time for this legislation is now.
“Public opinion has changed… The shark-fin wealthy Chinese market is definitely dying.”
Supermarket chains in Singapore have also begun to jump on the bandwagon and WWF’s Tan said an initiative encouraging restaurants to provide shark-fin-free menus has gained traction in Singapore and Hong Kong.
More than 100 hotels and restaurants in the two cities are now part of the programme, up from only 12 when it was launched in 2010, Tan said.
But it is not all good news.
Restaurants in Thailand were reporting a surge in shark-fin consumption ahead of the Lunar New Year, while high-end eateries in Malaysia – here there is a sizable ethnic Chinese population – are also holding firm.
“The number of people eating shark fin is only increasing, especially during Chinese New Year,” said Tiyamon Tiang-ngok, assistant manager at Summer Palace restaurant, at Intercontinental Hotel in Bangkok.
“Our main customers are Chinese Thais. When they dine at our restaurant, they often order our set menu, which includes shark-fin soup.”