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US shark fin restrictions carry little weight in Hong Kong

by Staff Writers
Hong Kong (AFP) Dec 26, 2010
The US Senate's move to toughen laws on shark finning is unlikely to have much impact in Hong Kong, dubbed the "Grand Central Station" of the controversial trade, environmentalists say.

The new legislation passed last week is aimed at protecting the ancient fish which experts fear is on the brink of extinction due to growing demand in Chinese restaurants, which use the fins in a hugely popular soup.

Few places prize the gelatinous delicacy more than Hong Kong, where it is a staple at high-end restaurants and wedding banquets, a mark of affluence in a city that accounts for as much as 80 percent of the world trade in fins.

Hong Kong was the largest importer of shark fin globally in 2007, buying about 277 million US dollars worth of fins, or 10,209 tonnes, according to United Nations figures.

One kilogram (2.2 pounds) from certain species can sell for 120 US dollars or more in Hong Kong.

The appetite for shark fin seems unlikely to wane, despite growing criticism online and among some couples who refuse to serve the soup at their weddings.

Hong Kong-born action star Jackie Chan, NBA superstar Yao Ming and Taiwanese movie director Ang Lee have also campaigned for shark conservation.

But demand remains strong and tens of millions of sharks are killed each year, often by fishermen who slice off their fins before throwing them back in the water to die.

The US banned finning 10 years ago, but the new law closes a loophole that allowed it in the Pacific as long as sharks were not finned onboard a vessel and led to a booming clandestine industry.

The bill does not ban the sale of shark fin, which is readily available in many upscale Chinese restaurants in the US.

Silvy Pun, a spokeswoman for the conservation group WWF Hong Kong, told AFP the US move would have little impact on the trade in the southern Chinese city.

"More than 80 countries actively contribute to Hong Kong's shark fin imports and the US is only one of them," she said.

"A lot more could be done, especially in terms of banning shark-slaughtering or at least imposing a legal limit on how many sharks can be killed each year," she added.

Hong Kong's government said it abides by restrictions on the trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

But even the Hong Kong fisheries and conservation department serves shark's fin soup at official events and has no plans to change the policy, a spokeswoman told AFP.

Pun described Hong Kong's position as "disappointing" and said she wanted other countries to follow the US example.

Shark's fin shops are common in Hong Kong and dealers reacted angrily to the tougher US laws, accusing campaigners of attacking Chinese culinary culture.

"It's because green groups always go around telling people not to eat shark fin... They are brainwashing the public," said Mak Ching-po, chairman of the Hong Kong Dried Seafood and Grocery Merchants' Association.

"Why don't they go after the foods of other cultures like caviar or foie gras? They simply want us and the whole industry to die. It is turning Chinese culture upside down."

The issue made headlines again earlier this month when culinary bible Michelin Guide awarded its highest three-star rating to Sun Tung Lok, a Hong Kong restaurant which -- like many in the city -- serves shark's fin soup.

A restaurant spokesman said they respected the US decision but defended selling the soup.

"We are just doing our own thing -- serving food to our customers. It's important to remember that out of more than 100 dishes that we serve, only four to five dishes are shark fin. There's no need to magnify the issue," he said.

More than 50 local restaurants have signed on to a WWF campaign urging shark-fin free menus.

The WWF's Pun said she believed attitudes were turning against eating shark's fin, but urged the authorities to do more.

"The government should be taking a lead role in this. There's only so much civil groups can do -- we need legislation," she said.

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