When Alan Yau opened his prestigious Hakkasan restaurant in the heart of London’s West End seven years ago it promised to provide patrons with a truly authentic Chinese culinary experience. It earned him a Michelin star.
But for some Hakkasan was unpalatably authentic, not least its £40-a-bowl shark fin soup.
And now, following a consumer backlash over the ethics of international shark fin trade, Hakassan has withdrawn its controversial dish. Environmental campaigners are hailing the move and declaring it as a starting point for a global protest targeting restaurants and businesses in the developed world that profit from the shark trade.
For conservationists, shark-fin soup leaves a distinctly bad taste. A symbol of wealth and prestige on mainland China and much of South East Asia, it is responsible for barbaric fishing practices that are decimating the world’s shark populations.
Environmentalists now hope to kick start a global movement reminiscent of the anti-whaling campaigns of the 1970s where activists were able to turn public opinion in the developed world against whaling which in turn pressured major whaling countries to sign up to a moratorium on hunting.
A spokesperson from Hakkasan today refused to be drawn into why the restaurant decided to stop using shark fin in their dishes after more than seven years of doing so. Jessica Salmon, a spokeswoman for the restaurant said: “There were many reasons but none that we would like to talk about.”
But campaigners are adamant their protests and growing public awareness of the plight of sharks were behind the sudden change of heart.
Since January this year environmental activists from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and UK-based charity Bite Back have been targeting Chinese restaurants in London that still place shark fin products on their menus.
Hakkasan was particularly singled out because it has a global footprint, with a restaurant already open in Istanbul and more chains planned for Abu Dhabi, Miami and Shanghai.
Activists began holding regular protests in Chinatown and handed out flyers explaining how the fin trade leads to what marine scientists say is the unsustainable deaths of millions of sharks each year.
Campaign director at Bite-Back, Graham Buckingham, said: “This victory for the seas sends out a determined and resolute message to the restaurant world … sell shark-fin soup and be damned. The only reason shark populations are facing extinction is because of retail and consumer demand. Remove that demand and the shark fishing trade will collapse.”
And the campaign appears to be becoming more dramatic. This afternoon a woman placed hooks through her skin and hung herself from a shop window on Regent Street to highlight the plight of the world’s sharks.
Canadian film maker Rob Stewart who has spent his life documenting the damage done to the world’s shark population told the Independent today that he hoped more restaurants would follow Hakkasan’s lead. “If you go down Chinatown in London, Toronto or LA, believe me, shark fin will be available. It might not be on the print menu but it’ll be there.”
Every year more than 100 million sharks are killed for their fins which conservationists say has led to a devastating 90 per cent reduction in the global shark population over the past 30 years. Most of those that are caught are killed for their fins. In order to save space on the boats, the vast majority of those that are caught have their fins removed with a knife on board the ship – a process known as finning - and are then dumped back in the ocean where they die slowly.
Shark fin soup is coveted across China and South East Asia for its supposed “medicinal qualities” based on the erroneous belief that sharks never get sick.
Although 16 countries and the EU have banned finning, it is still not illegal to import or export fins anywhere in the world and hundreds of tonnes of fins arrive in the UK ports every year.
Activists now say they will continue to target restaurants that use shark fin in their dishes as well as any businesses that profit from the sale of jaws, cartilage, fins, teeth, meat and liver oil. Next on their list is the health product store Holland and Barrett which sells capsules made from shark cartilage.
Holland and Barrett today said that their shark capsules would not be withdrawn but they were being discontinued. A spokesperson said: “You may still see it in the shops but it will phase out very quickly.” This afternoon the capsules were still available on the shop’s website.