High-end hotels are pulling shark fin soup off their menus as international outrage spreads over the controversial practice of finning and a suspected drop in the population of the predatory species.
Fishermen in the Tohoku region who have traditionally relied on harvesting the fish are feeling the backlash, as they work to rebuild their tsunami-stricken communities through their shark hunts.
“The shark hunt in the city and other coastal areas in Tohoku is a long tradition,” said Kazuhiko Miura, a senior managing director of the Kesennuma high seas fishing cooperatives in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture. “It has been conducted in compliance with international rules.”
In April, Hilton Tokyo and 10 other hotels in the same group in Japan removed shark fin soup from their restaurants, joining Hiltons in China and Southeast Asia that made the change in late 2012.
“There is a report that there are fewer sharks now due to unregulated fishing whose sole purpose is to obtain shark fins,” said a Hilton official. “We hope our decision (not to serve shark fin dishes) will help advance the global conservation of the fish.”
Shangri-La Hotel and the Peninsula made a similar move two years ago. Korean Air Lines Co. pulled out of the business of transporting shark fins.
Against the backdrop of the sea change lies intensive lobbying by influential environmental groups.
In a 2005 statement, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), one of the world’s largest conservation bodies, accused a hotel at Hong Kong Disneyland of serving shark fin soup. The Hong Kong resort later stopped serving the expensive delicacy.
The WWF is continuing to call on hotels and other establishments in Hong Kong to switch to other ingredients.
In Japan, Lush Japan Co., a retailer of organic skin-care products, launched a “No! Finning” campaign late May to protest the practice of shark finning, calling it “cruel.”
In finning, fishermen discard the sharks in the ocean after slicing off their fins, leaving the fish to die.
The method is banned in Japan, but it is practiced in some countries and regions. Fins represent only 5 percent of the entire fish.
A kilogram of blue shark fins trades for about 20,000 yen ($196) in Japan. Blue sharks are the most harvested species of all the sharks in the nation.
The most coveted type of shark fin fetches as much as 100,000 yen per kilogram and is exported to China, the world’s largest consumer of shark fin soup.
In contrast, shark meat sells for only 1,000-2,000 yen per kilogram, partly explaining why finning persists in areas where fisheries management is lax.
An official with Lush Japan, which is based in Kanagawa Prefecture, said, “The anti-finning campaign is designed to educate the public that some of the premium ingredients are acquired through finning.”
However, it is not meant to deny shark hunting in Kesennuma and elsewhere in Japan, the official added.
Officials in the fisheries and food industry defended the shark hunt in Kesennuma, where a daily catch of blue sharks is hauled ashore and sold.
Norikazu Asakura, senior managing director of the Japan Association of Chinese Cuisine, an organization in Tokyo, said the hunt in the city is part of the “culture” that must be preserved.
“It is Kesennuma’s traditional practice to utilize the fish down to the shark bones and skin,” he said. “That is different from the fishing methods in some other countries.”
Takashi Suzuki, a lecturer well-versed in fisheries economy at St. Andrew’s University in Osaka Prefecture, called for gathering data on the species as a first step in addressing the issue.
“Little data is available about details of the population of most shark species,” he said. “We should obtain accurate figures and discuss how we can achieve a sustainable shark hunt and management. Otherwise, shark fins could become the target of regulation.”