For many centuries, shark fins are revered among Chinese globally as a delicacy fit for emperors and noblemen. As the fins are expensive, the Chinese saying “to be able to eat rice with shark fins” symbolizes one's wealth and prosperity.
But the delicacy is appearing on fewer menus in places like Kuala Lumpur.
The fins, which have a springy texture, is highly coveted and traditionally served as soup at Chinese weddings. It is widely perceived that dinner hosts would be seen as more generous and gracious to their guests by serving shark fin soup.
While the premium attached to shark fins is high, the younger and increasingly wealthier generation of Chinese are now rejecting them as the result of heightened awareness of the near-extinction of sharks globally.
When Melody Song, 25, had her wedding in a Chinese restaurant recently, shark fin soup was missing on the menu. Instead, she had asked the restaurant to replace the delicacy with crab meat soup.
“I have stopped consuming shark fins in recent years, as a result of being influenced by my cousin, who is an animal lover. When I attended weddings in the past, I have declined to consume the shark fins soup, although I have been criticized by older people for 'wasting food,'” she said.
Restaurants have also caught on this consumption trend, and more establishments are taking shark fins off their menus to appeal to conscientious young customers.
The Shangri-La Hotel chain is the latest to announce that it has stopped taking orders and serving shark fins and other endangered fish species, including the bluefin tuna and Chilean sea bass.
Maria Kuhn, Shangri-La's director of communications said the hotel chain does not think it will lose customers despite its removal of shark fins off the menu. “With suitable alternatives readily available, we do not foresee a decline in business. We have received [an] overwhelmingly positive support from this initiative,” she said.
She said guest comments in recent years have also indicated that in recent years, the younger generation would prefer to steer away from shark fins.
“While shark fin soup has been a tradition in Chinese cuisine for many years, specifically for celebrations such as weddings, worldwide trends have clearly demonstrated there is growing awareness of the damage the practice of finning does to the ecosystem,” Kuhn said.
The increasing awareness about the effect of killing sharks for their fins is apparently showing some results. According to a survey conducted by Bloom Association, a marine conservationist group, nearly 80 percent of people in Hong Kong think it is acceptable if shark fins are not served.
In January, Shangri-La joins several establishments to stop serving shark fins and other endangered species in its 72 hotels, most of which are located in Asia.
Shangri-La's decision came hot on the heels of similar bans made by the Singapore-based supermarket chain FairPrice and the French-based Carrefour in Singapore, that used to sell canned shark fins.
However, Southeast Asia still has an active shark fin market, namely in Singapore, Indonesia is also known to be among the largest shark fin exporters globally.
Shark fin soup, a dish consumed by Chinese emperors and noblemen since the Ming Dynasty between the 14th and 17th century, is among the most expensive foods in the world today. Prices ranging from $1,500 to $60,000 per fin.
Nevertheless, a Kuala Lumpur restaurant owner who only wanted to be known as Mr. Lee, says he will continue to serve shark fins to customers.
“Perhaps, when there is enough pressure exerted on the banning of shark fins, we will also stop serving it our restaurants. But, for the meantime, we will continue to provide shark fins as there is still demand for it,” he said.
Lee said the supply of shark fins is still readily available, although the price fluctuates every now and then. “Since we are still able to obtain shark fins pretty easily, it makes business sense for us to continue to serve it to our customers, as the delicacy is considered premium quality,” he said.
The high prices of shark fins make its trade lucrative and hence, the supply of fins is still intact. According to Oceana, a marine conservation group, almost 10 million kilograms of shark fins were exported in 2008, as a result of killing of 73 million sharks worldwide.
The marine conservation group Shark Foundation say the battle to stop the practice of finning is a hard one, especially with the increasing wealth of China's middle class that has opened up a massive new market.
Gangaram Pursumal, sea program manager for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Peninsula Malaysia, said it is heartening to see more establishments declining to serve shark fins.
“This has come about, thanks to the wide and repeated publicity given to this issue. Many NGOs have strongly condemned the practice of finning, and these initiatives have jointly convinced more establishments to follow suit. We hope this awareness will continue to spread,” he said.
Melody Song, however, expresses optimism for her stand on shark fins consumption.
“If there is no demand from people like me, there will eventually be no supply as well,” she said.