Beijing has ordered government officials to take shark fin soup
off banquet menus within three years, but it's unclear whether local
bureaucrats will obey. Environmentalists applauded the move,
China is planning to ban shark fin soup -- a pricey delicacy whose rising popularity has been blamed for a sharp decline in global shark populations -- from official banquets, the state news media reported Tuesday.
The ban could take as many as three years to go into effect, and it remains to be seen how widely it will be implemented 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, reported by Xinhua, the state news agency, citing China Network Television, was welcomed by environmental campaigners. Experts have long cautioned that soaring demand for shark fin 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 added that the move would send an important signal to consumers in China, which is the world's largest single market for the fins.
Stan Shea, a project coordinator in Hong Kong at Bloom Association, a marine conservation organization, also welcomed the policy, saying that it represented a "big step" to help shark populations.
The soup brewed from sharks' fins is largely tasteless, but it has considerable cachet as a status symbol. Many in China consider it a must-serve at the lavish, multicourse banquets that mark weddings, anniversaries, and corporate and state celebrations.
Retailers in Hong Kong, the main hub for the international trade in the dried fins, charge more than 2,000 Hong Kong dollars, or $260, per "catty," a traditional weight measure commonly used in markets here. Equal to about half a kilogram or just over one pound, one catty makes about 10 portions of shark fin soup.
Still, rapid economic growth across Asia in recent years has catapulted millions into the ranks of those who can now afford the dish. Many other animal and plant species also have been eroded by the soaring demand, experts warn.
In a bid to conserve shark populations, several nations have banned the fishing of sharks in their waters. Several U.S. 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 their menus 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-mailed comment, reiterated on Tuesday its long-held stance that the government implements the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites.
Environmentalists, however, argue that Cites should list as threatened a far larger number of shark species than it currently 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 outright from official banquets.
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