Summer Palace, a restaurant tucked inside one of the capital's most expensive hotels, offers the standard selection of Chinese delicacies: abalone, braised sea cucumber and imperial bird's nest soup, which sells for about 700 renminbi, or more than $100, a serving. Noticeably absent, however, is a mainstay of Chinese cuisine — shark fin soup.
"We took it off our menu a while ago," the hostess said without apology. "Environmental protection."
Summer Palace is one of a handful of restaurants in Beijing that have heeded a decade-long conservation effort to persuade diners and business owners to eschew shark's fin, a traditional delicacy valued more as a status symbol than for its taste.
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But according to a report issued in December by an environmental group based in Beijing, the campaign, backed by some of the country's top celebrities, has so far failed to persuade most restaurants and hotels to drop the fibrous dish from their menus.
"Shark fin soup is still an obligatory dish at business banquets and weddings," said Wang Xue, chief coordinator of the survey sponsored by Green Beagle.
The survey found that only 17 of 249 luxury hotels in Beijing, Shenzhen and Fuzhou had stopped offering the popular dish. Of those that have dropped shark fin from their menus, most are owned by multinational companies like Sheraton, Marriott International and Shangri-La International Hotel Management of Hong Kong.
For the growing number of shark protectionists in China, the survey results, though disappointing, were not surprising. Shark fin soup has become a lucrative source of revenue for high-end restaurants. An individual serving can cost as much as 2,000 renminbi, or about $320. At some locations of South Beauty, the only upscale Chinese restaurant chain to have stopped selling the dish, shark fin soup accounted for 20 to 30 percent of revenues, according to Wang Yihua, a general manager for the chain, which specializes in Sichuanese cuisine.
Environmentalists have their work cut out for them. With millions of Chinese becoming newly affluent each year, the dish, once unaffordable to all but the most privileged, is suddenly within reach. The desire to revel in that newfound wealth — and broadcast it to friends and business associates — is contributing to a rapid depletion of the world's shark population.
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As many as 73 million sharks are killed every year, many for their fins, and nearly a third of shark species are threatened with extinction, according to a 2011 report by the Pew Charitable Trust's global shark conservation campaign. Because sharks sit atop the ocean food chain, their plummeting numbers have an outsize impact on the entire marine ecosystem.
Also alarming to some is the sheer brutality of shark-finning itself: After the fins are sliced off, the sharks are often thrown back into the ocean to die.
Increasing concerns about the impact of shark finning have prompted governments to take action. Though the practice of shark finning had already been banned in the United States, in 2011, several states, including Hawaii, California and Washington, enacted broader laws to prohibit the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins. In 2012, Taiwan introduced new fishing laws banning shark finning, making it the first government to ban the practice in Asia.
But in mainland China, powerful trade groups like the China Hotel Association have so far been unmoved. Environmentalists have been pressing the association to withhold its "green hotel" stamp of approval from members that serve shark fin. Zhang Jingfu, assistant to the chairman of the China Hotel Association, said the group encouraged businesses to reduce sales of shark fin but was not prepared to do more. "The sales and consumption of shark fins are market-driven behavior, and the hotel association cannot force the industry or consumers to stop," he said in an e-mail.