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News from Asia: Score One for the Sharks

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Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts announced yesterday that it was placing an immediate ban on shark fin and phasing out Chilean sea bass and blue-fin tuna within the year. According to Shangri-La spokeswoman Maria Kuhn, the new policy, which affects all 72 properties, has been a long time coming. “In December 2010, we took shark’s fin off our menus as a first step towards completely phasing it out,” says Kuhn, who is based in Hong Kong, where the company’s headquarters are.

Shangri-La joins Peninsula hotels, which announced a ban on shark fin in November. For both properties, it’s a bold, gutsy move. Both have a serious presence in China, where shark fin, long considered a delicacy, has become de rigueur at banquets. In fact, Shangri-La, which already runs 35 hotels in Hong Kong and mainland China, has 23 properties under development in China. It also has hotels in Taiwan and Singapore.

What does shark fin taste like? Not much. So what’s the big deal of having some tasteless, gelatinous threads in your soup is? It all boils down to one thing: status. Status is important in Chinese society, and for centuries, shark’s fin was reserved for the elite. It was a way for rich Chinese to flaunt their wealth and status. These days, a bowl of shark’s fin soup can cost as little as $10, placing it within reach of increasingly wealthy Chinese consumers. (Premium shark’s fin can still set you back $1,280 a kilogram.)

The growing appetite for shark’s fin poses the biggest threat to shark populations worldwide. The numbers are chilling: up to 73 million sharks are slaughtered; some shark populations have fallen by 99 percent. WildAid, a conservation group that has campaigned against shark fin, says nearly a third of open-ocean shark species are under threat. Disturbingly, even the carcasses of whale sharks—rare, gentle, non-carnivorous creatures—have turned up without their fins in recent years.

Most sharks are on the top of the food chain: remove them and we’re risking serious havoc. “The decline and loss of sharks may have other devastating consequences for other species in our marine environment as the natural balance in the ecosystem is disrupted,” Steve Trent, the president of WildAid, tells T+L.

But the ecological threat isn’t the only reason to avoid shark’s fin, the way they’re collected is especially cruel. Sharks are hauled onto the deck and their fins are hacked off while they’re still alive. They’re then dumped back into the sea—shark meat isn’t considered valuable. They die either by drowning or bleeding to death. (Here’s a graphic CNN clip about the shark fin trade.)

Governments are starting to heed growing calls to ban shark finning. The European Commission and Taiwan—home to the world’s fourth largest shark fin industry—have enacted bans. The laws state that all sharks must arrive on land with their fins attached. That doesn’t prevent fishermen from slicing off fins once they’re on shore, but weight limits means their hauls won’t be as big.

But the only way to protect sharks is by changing attitudes. WildAid has recruited high-profile Chinese such as NBA star Yao Ming and diving gold medalist Li Ting in their anti-shark fin campaigns. There are some indications that attitudes among younger Chinese are shifting. A poll in 2010 by Bloom Association, a marine conservation group, found that 78 percent of Hong Kongers said they wouldn’t mind if shark fin was left off the menu.

Still, there is a long way to go. “We have been trying for years to convince Bangkok's top hotels from doing the same [as Shangri-La], but have been disappointed in their refusal to delete one of their biggest earners from menu choices,” says Steve Galster, the executive director of Freeland, a Bangkok-based nonprofit.

As a features editor of Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, I found myself arguing with writers—who, like me, are ethnic Chinese—about shark fin. Just the other week, an acquaintance said though she hasn’t eaten shark fin in years, she still missed it. “Why,” I countered. “It doesn’t taste of anything?” (Read food writer Jarrett Wrisley’s riposte on shark fin’s dirty secret—it’s a tough, tasteless ingredient.) “But it’s part of our culture, our upbringing.”

Jennifer Chen is Travel + Leisure's Asia correspondent.

Photo courtesy of the T+L Photo Contest

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