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The Shark-Fin Soup Ban Extends to Asia's Oldest Hotel Brand

Posted Nov 28 2011 6:01pm

Soup from Asia I ate shark-fin soup once. On a prix-fixe menu a lifetime ago on a trip to Asia, I had no idea what it was or that sharks had been maimed for that day’s “delicacy.” I thought I had a cast-iron stomach, but it did not sit well. OK, I confess: it did not sit at all. The taste simply didn’t translate. I might have managed the broth if not for the bland-tasting intruder. As I hesitantly chewed on a rubbery bit, its slimy coating slid disconcertingly around my mouth. To humor my host, who paid a lot for the meal, I chewed maybe two more bites . . . but that was too much. I’ve eaten odd foods before and since. None has made such an impression on me as shark-fin soup did.

So when California and Toronto  recently passed bans, I was among those who did not shed a tear. I ate it out of ignorance before the issue had any traction. But many people around the world buy and sell the soup's key ingredient with full knowledge of the cruelty and controversy involved. Because it's popular at weddings and business banquets, hotel chains typically offer shark-fin soup on event menus . But as the practice of shark-finning came under increasing scrutiny several years ago, a few hotels responded by offering other soup options, often in a footnote on the menu. But shark-fin soup still sits prominently on many menus, even at a number of Western chains .

Leave it to Asia’s oldest hotel company to remove it from the menu completely. The parent company of the prestigious Peninsula Hotels announced its decision a few days ago. Clement K.M. Kwok, the CEO of  Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels , said, “By removing shark fin from our menus, we hope [to help preserve] the marine ecosystem for the world’s future generations . . . [and] inspire other hospitality companies to do the same . . . Our industry will play a role in helping to preserve the biodiversity of our oceans.”

At WWF Hong Kong, Silvy Pun works to protect sharks. She explained: "The Peninsula hotel chain is setting an example for other hotels and restaurants to follow. The decision also suggests that consumers have become more eco-conscious and market demand is changing. Shark-fin soup is no longer a must-have item."

Though other major companies  have adopted the same policy, many advocates hope the Peninsula chain’s move will send a strong message. Pun offers perspective on the progress: The number of new caterers signing on to the WWF's alternative-menu program increased over the past year from 12 to 97, "but it was a challenging time when we first started."

As awareness of the need for shark conservation increases, restaurants are succumbing to the pressure and celebrity chefs are calling for change. Grassroots action may be key, as the experience of one restaurant owner shows: He removed the item from his menu after objectors stood outside his restaurant outlining the issue for potential customers. In September, a prominent Singapore supermarket chain announced the end of its shark-product sales. And as citizens speak up, governments are responding — last Monday,  two more municipalities in Canada (London and Pickering, Ontario) passed bans.

This shift is good, but the issue is still urgent: Over the past five years, the number of threatened sharks and related species has grown, mainly because of overfishing. That's a fact that's distasteful in more ways than one.

--Carolyn Cotney / image: iStockphoto

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