It was the go-to soup for emperors of centuries past — a tradition revered in Chinese culture that ultimately symbolized wealth, status and prestige. But as China has gotten richer, shark fin soup consumption has increased. And with that, so has the scrutiny surrounding the issue increased, even in Asia.
But as environmentalists and the general populace takes notice, will shark fin’s soup retain its place as a luxe item? Indeed, in places around Hong Kong, hotel chains and restaurants are taking steps to knock it off the menu. Two days ago, Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, one of Asia’s most prestigious hotel chains, announced that shark fin soup would no longer be available at its properties starting in 2012. While current orders made before the decision would be honored, it will no longer be part of the menu as an existing option.
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The move would mostly affect the group’s Peninsula properties in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. The flagship, Hong Kong, is one of the city’s most iconic hotels, known for its sheer majestic opulence — a single night in the hotel’s most basic room can start at $600, accompanied by a swanky fleet of Rolls-Royces. Hotel group CEO Clement K.M. Kwok remarked that “As Asia’s oldest hotel company, we also hope that our decision will inspire other hospitality companies to do the same and that our industry will play a role in helping to preserve the bio-diversity of our oceans.” Perhaps, it is time for guests to stop eating like emperors, though they may continue to sleep like one.
While the banning of shark fin has received momentum in states like California and Hawaii, it is in Asia where the vast majority of consumption occurs. Long considered to be the hub of the shark fin industry, Hong Kong is where it is bought, sold and traded — experts estimate that possibly up to 80% of the world’s shark fins pass through here. Ironically, they’re not hunted here: Spain and Europe remains one of the trade’s biggest suppliers despite current fishing laws. (The European Union also recently introduced draft legislation to close a legal loophole that would finally allow shark finning to be completely banned.)
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The movement is finding plenty of traction at home, where it matters most. Among some of its most prolific detractors is Chinese basketball star Yao Ming, who has long advocated against the effects of shark finning since 2006. Last year, Citibank Hong Kong withdrew a shark fin soup promotion after the marketing initative ruffled feathers within the city’s community. WWF Hong Kong’s Seafood Choice Initiative, which encourages companies to abstain using the ingredient in company-sponsored events, has signed on over 39 companies including local giants HSBC and Swire Properties.
According to a survey conducted by Bloom Association, a marine conservationist group, there seems to be a growing local awareness about the dangers of shark fin soup and its effect on endangered species. Though traditionally served as part of a set menu at wedding banquets, nearly 80% of Hong Kongers surveyed said it would be acceptable if shark fin was not served. Another 42% contemplated the idea of serving an alternative dish in the controversial soup’s place.
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Hotel chains, where wedding banquets are often held, are taking notice. And it’s not necessarily limited to the Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels group. According to the Guardian:
Several hotels offer discounts, cheaper room rates and other incentives for couples that choose not to serve shark fin at their wedding celebrations.
One online campaign calls on wedding guests to reduce cash gifts by about a third for couples who select the dish.
Flagging demand — though it still remains popular in Chinese cuisine — has not gone unnoticed. The New York Times notes that summer sales have been reduced by nearly one-third in centers like Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Over the past two months, its also been reported that wholesalers have seen the price of shark fin drop by about 20%, as demand has slowly plummeted. While it remains to be seen whether it’ll be a lasting trend, it may be a sign that the conservation movement is finally making some headway through the epicenter of the industry.
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Erica Ho is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @ericamho and Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.