China said Tuesday that it would prohibit official banquets from serving shark fin soup, an expensive and popular delicacy blamed for a sharp decline in global shark populations.
The ban, reported by Xinhua, the state-run news agency, could take as many as three years to take effect, and it remains unclear how widely it will be adhered to across a sprawling nation where orders issued by Beijing are often shrugged off by officials in faraway regions and provinces.
Still, the decision to stop serving shark fin soup at official functions was welcomed by environmental campaigners. Experts have long cautioned that soaring demand for the soup over the past two decades has imperiled shark populations around the globe.
“This is a very positive step forward,” said Andy Cornish, director of conservation at W.W.F. in Hong Kong. “It is the first time that the Chinese central government has expressed a decision to phase out shark fin from banquets funded by taxpayers’ money.” He said the move would send an important signal to consumers in China, the largest market for the fins.
Stan Shea, a project coordinator in Hong Kong at Bloom Association, a marine conservation organization, likewise welcomed the policy change, saying it represented a “big step” to help shark populations.
The soup, brewed from dried shark fins, is largely tasteless and slithery but has considerable cachet as a status symbol. Many in China consider it a must-serve at lavish, multicourse banquets to celebrate weddings, anniversaries and corporate and state events.
Retailers in Hong Kong, the main hub for the international trade in the fins, charge more than 2,000 Hong Kong dollars, or $260, per catty, a traditional weight measure commonly used in markets here. Equal to just over one pound, one catty makes about 10 portions of soup, which works out to $26 a portion.
Rapid economic growth across Asia in recent years has catapulted millions into the ranks of those who can now afford the dish.
In an effort to conserve shark populations, several nations have banned the fishing of sharks. Several American states, including California, have banned the possession, sale and distribution of shark fins. And in Hong Kong, several high-end restaurants and hotels have recently taken shark fin off the menu in response to shifting public awareness in the city. The Hong Kong government has so far resisted calls from shark conservationists to curtail the trade or consumption of shark fins.
“The Hong Kong government has repeatedly dodged the question of implementing a banqueting ban on shark fin soup, saying that it sees no need for such guidelines,” said Mr. Cornish of W.W.F. “We strongly hope that the new administration in Hong Kong government will shortly follow suit.”
The Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department’s media office, in an e-mail on Tuesday, reiterated its long-held stance that the government carries out the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known by its acronym, Cites.
Environmentalists, however, argue that Cites should list as threatened a far larger number of shark species than it does.
Hong Kong government guidelines stipulate that official banquets not be “extravagant,” and this means menus do not “generally include shark fin,” the media department added. It did not say whether Hong Kong would echo Beijing’s decision to ban the dish from official banquets.