However, unsustainable and barbaric methods of harvesting the fish mean shark populations are increasingly endangered.
More than 150 activists braved oppressive heat Sunday to deliver a letter calling on the new head of the Hong Kong government, Leung Chun-ying, to ban the use of shark fin at official government banquets.
According to Rachel Vickerstaff of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, the southern Chinese city is the destination for over half the shark fin traded globally, a market worth more than $500 million a year.
“Our objectives are to get some public awareness of what we’re trying to do and to let CY know why he needs to see why sharks need saving,” said Ms. Vickerstaff using the leader’s nickname.
Sharks are afforded some protection by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES. However, Ms. Vickerstaff calculates that up to 70 million sharks are killed each year to feed the growing demand for shark fin among increasingly affluent Chinese consumers.
“The Hong Kong government has hidden behind CITES, which is pretty ineffective. CITES only has international trade restrictions on three species of shark. But the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists well over 100 species as threatened or near threatened with extinction,” added Ms. Vickerstaff.
Nowadays, shark fin is served in soups at business and wedding banquets as a symbol of status. Depending on a specimen’s quality, a bowl of shark fin soup can cost more than $100, while a dorsal fin of the prized whale shark can retail for up to $20,000.
Conservationists say the over-fishing of apex predators has a negative effect on the ocean ecosystem. But they say there is some good news. Younger generations in China are increasingly reluctant to partake of shark fin.
Nina Whittaker, a student at Li Po Chun United World College, says this is not just for conservation reasons, but also because of the brutal way fishermen harvest the fin.
“They’ll take sharks on board and cut their fins off; then throw the live sharks overboard. They can’t swim without them so it’s a painful, unpleasant death,” said Ms. Whittaker. “So piles and piles of fins, and hundreds and hundreds of shark carcasses in the sea. It’s such a waste.”
What is more, says Ms. Whittaker, shark fin soup actually tastes pretty bland.