By Joyce Woo, AFP
HONG KONG — The U.S. 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 US$277 million worth of fins, or 10,209 tonnes, according to United Nations figures. One kilogram (2.2 pounds) from certain species can sell for US$120 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Silvy Pun, a spokeswoman for the conservation group WWF Hong Kong, told AFP the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. example. Shark’s fin shops are common in Hong Kong and dealers reacted angrily to the tougher U.S. 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 U.S. decision but defended selling the soup. More than 50 local restaurants have signed on to a WWF campaign urging shark-fin free menus.