Wildlife campaigners drive shark's fin soup off menus

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The Independent Online

Shark's fin soup, one of the world's most highly prized delicacies, is coming off the menu all over South-East Asia as a result of moral pressure from conservationists.

Traders say consumption of the soup has dropped by more than a half in parts of the region since a campaign against it was launched last year. Celebrities have abjured the traditional practice of serving it at their weddings, airlines have stopped offering it to premium-class passengers and Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, has backed the bid to save the fish he did so much to demonise.

Traders, who initially dismissed the campaign as "toothless'', have responded by taking the American charity behind the campaign to court. Fifteen restaurateurs who serve shark's fin soup in Bangkok are suing WildAid, based in San Francisco, for US$2.5m (£1.74m) after sales in the city slumped by 70 per cent.

Fishermen slice the fins for the soup – which can cost $100 a bowl – off the sharks they catch before returning them to the ocean to die in order to save space on their boats for more of the highly priced appendages.

WildAid says that trade in the fins has more than doubled over the past 15 years as rising prosperity in China and South-East Asia creates more consumers. It claims the fins add no taste and little nutrition to the soup and are just used to add texture to the glutinous brew which is traditionally served at weddings and business dinners, as an indicator of social status.

The conservationists say the practice is cruel and is endangering sharks, an important source of food for many Third World coastal communities. Peter Knight, director of WildAid, says scores of millions of sharks are killed each year. "It is sadly ironic that, in countries such as Kenya and Brazil, people are losing their subsistence food to supply one of the world's most expensive culinary items,'' he adds.

Peter Benchley says: "In the 25 years since Jaws was first released, sharks have experienced an unprecedented and uncontrolled attack. They are much more the victims than the villains.''

WildAid has also raised a storm by claiming it has found high levels of toxic mercury in seven out of 10 shark fins bought at random in Bangkok.

Fashions are rapidly changing as film stars and the daughter of the President of Taiwan have announced that they will not serve the soup at their weddings.

Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways International have taken it off their menus. The US and Australia have banned cutting the fins off sharks in their waters.

The traders are fighting back, saying that the claims of cruelty over-exploitation and mercury contamination are false.