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Disney Reignites Hong Kong Shark Fin Debate

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Thomas Kelley

Hong Kong Disneyland is set to open September 12. But the theme park has already suffered bad publicity and it ultimately had to reverse course on its plan to serve shark's fin soup. The Disney controversy has ignited debate over the practice of eating shark fin, and the city's role in the trade.

After waging a spirited campaign against the Walt Disney Company, environmentalists welcomed Hong Kong Disneyland's announcement that it will not serve the Chinese delicacy, shark's fin soup.

Disney came under fire when it said it would serve the dish at two of the attraction's hotels. Greenpeace, the Worldwide Fund for Nature and WildAid say the company was neglecting its publicized commitment to protecting endangered species.

Disney said that although it takes environmental stewardship seriously, it wanted to balance those concerns with cultural sensitivity to Chinese customs.

But, Hong Kong environmentalist Brian Darvell says that argument does not justify overfishing shark populations for what he calls a vanity dish.

"You have to bear in mind that times change and that if a particular habit or custom is unsustainable then all the bleating in the world is not going to change anything," he stressed.

Central to this conflict between culture, commerce and conservation is the decline of shark populations around the globe. Many scientists say the number of sharks worldwide has dropped by half over the past 15 years, and some species may have declined by more than 70 percent.

The World Conservation Union says more than 250 shark species may be threatened by the fin trade. Among them are hammerheads, the plankton-eating basking shark and the spiny dogfish.

Conservationists oppose what they call the cruelty and wastefulness of gathering shark fins. Mr. Darvell says the fins are most often obtained through a process called finning.

"The practice generally then is to remove the fins and dump the live animal overboard to bleed to death, to drown as some put it," he explained. "But of course in deep water it's just going to end up on the bottom. It won't be able to do anything and it dies. This is barbaric."

People in the shark fin industry say that is not true, that most of their product comes from standard fishing methods.

But Disney says it abandoned plans to serve shark fin because it cannot find a trader that humanely fishes sharks that are not endangered.

Conservationists say Disney's decision is important because its newest park is located at the center of the shark fin trade.

By some estimates up to 85 percent of the world's shark fin business flows through Hong Kong.

Victor Wu with the conservation group WildAid in Singapore says the stakes are rising, because increasing wealth in China is boosting demand for shark fin.

"Hong Kong is the capital of the shark fin trade, easily, without a doubt," he said. "Everywhere in the world, every fishing port that you visit where there are Chinese traders or local traders, all the fishermen around the world - we have done extensive research in Central America, out in Indonesia, and some of the other African and Indian peninsula region - everyone is sending their fins to Hong Kong."

Hong Kong's Sai Ying Pun district is the heart of the city's shark fin trade. Its shops are packed with fins of all shapes, sizes and prices.

For the best grade, one bowl of shark's fin soup can command hundreds of dollars. Hong Kong Chefs Association president Perry Yuen says that the more uncommon the shark fin, the more expensive the dish.

"They have different variety of shark fin. Some of them, they are, they are very unique, and they are very less in the world and then, you know (then) it gets more expensive," he explained.

And it is the price of the delicacy that appears to matter most. While many enjoy it for its taste and reputed healthful properties, shark's fin soup is most popular as a sign of status. Because it is expensive and requires intensive preparation, many Chinese associate it with wealth and power.

Shark's fin soup is a traditional dish at Chinese banquets and weddings. Mr. Yuen explains that to not serve shark fin soup to your guests is to lose face.

"Chinese people, we won't eat shark fin everyday. But for banqueting, shark fin almost is a must, almost is a must. If the menu is without shark fin then the guests will think, 'Oh, the organizer is cheap,' " he explained.

Disney says this is why it originally had planned to make shark's fin soup available for special functions at two of its Hong Kong hotels.

Conservationists applaud Disney's reversal. They say Disney has long been a supporter of wildlife conservation and should stick to that position.

WildAid's Mr. Wu also says the company has an opportunity to send a strong message to Hong Kong and the world about the need for shark conservation.

"Disney could really turn this around and make it a very, very positive story and reinforce the conservation message they have been preaching for all these years, considering all the great work that Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund has done, just because of a very, very small faux pas that Hong Kong Disneyland seemed to have made," he said.

Some conservationists have already shifted the battle to the Hong Kong government. Activists have sent letters to the Environment Secretary and the Hong Kong Tourism Board, urging the government to take broader action and reduce consumer demand through education. The Worldwide Fund has begun to pressure the government to promote the consumption of shark fin that is obtained from unthreatened species.

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