HONG KONG — When Steven Leung and Sylvia Cheung celebrated their nuptials in this southern Chinese financial center recently, they lavished their guests with one sumptuous dish after another – bird nest soup, lobster, abalone.
But one traditional dish was missing from the 13-course Cantonese banquet. The newlyweds chose not to serve shark fin soup.
"I saw the cruelty in shark slaughtering in online videos. The way the fish is dumped back into the water – it is just inhumane," Leung said, referring to the practice of hacking off the fins of sharks, then setting them free.
The Hong Kong couple are part of a growing grass-roots movement in this global hub of shark fin consumption that aims to remove the staple of gourmet Chinese cuisine from restaurant menus.
"Shark fin is not a necessity at banquets, as long as guests are well-treated and there is good food," said Cheung. "We have great substitutes for the soup that are equally as prestigious and exquisite."
For centuries, shark fin – usually served as soup – has been a coveted delicacy in Chinese cooking, extolled for its supposed ability to boost sexual potency, enhance skin quality, increase one's energy (or "qi"), prevent heart diseases and lower cholesterol.
To prepare for soup, dried fin first is soaked in water overnight, then boiled for several hours to soften the cartilage and remove impurities. It then is cooked in a rich chicken broth with salted ham, mushrooms, dried scallops and abalone. Shark fin itself is tasteless, but has a slippery and glutinous texture.
It's an especially cherished menu item in wealthy Hong Kong, a pricey status symbol for its materialistic and status-conscious people. Depending on the quantity and the quality of the fin in the soup, the dish can cost from $10 to $150 a bowl.
"Hong Kong is the Grand Central Station in the shark fin trade," said Canadian filmmaker Rob Stewart, who chronicled the shark-hunting industry in the 2007 documentary "Sharkwater."
Nearly 80 percent of Cantonese-speaking residents in the city of 7 million had consumed shark fin, according to a poll conducted by the conservation group WWF Hong Kong in 2005. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that the former British colony handles between 50 to 80 percent of the global shark fin trade. Hong Kong was the world's top importer of shark fin in 2007, taking in 10,209 metric tons, or a total value of $276.7 million, according to the latest figures from the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization.
However, activists like Stewart are making an impression on a younger generation of Hong Kongers like the Leungs by touting the gruesome toll of the dining habits of their parents and ancestors.
As many as 73 million sharks are killed annually for their fins, according to a 2006 study by fisheries expert Shelley Clarke, a visiting researcher at London's Imperial College. Shark populations have plummeted from overfishing, with nearly a third of open ocean sharks facing extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
In April, the U.S. state of Hawaii banned the sale and possession of shark fin. The campaign is now gaining ground in Hong Kong.
Computer engineer Clement Lee set up a Facebook group in March urging locals to cut their gift money to newlyweds by 30 percent if they serve shark fin soup at their wedding banquets. The group now as more than 18,000 supporters. In July, he forced Citibank Hong Kong drop a shark fin set dinner discount for its credit card holders after criticizing the marketing campaign in another Facebook group.
And since June, Hong Kong environmental group Green Sense has signed up 182 primary and secondary schools for their "Sharks We Care" campaign, with the schools pledging not to serve shark fin at banquets and activities.
Responding to the new consciousness, local restaurants are starting to offer shark-fin free menus. Chinese restaurant chain L.H. Group said the response has been positive.
"We get a lot of inquiries and people interested in ordering the new menu weekly since we rolled out in May," said company spokeswoman Toby Kwan.
Local shark fin traders also say they are noticing the shift in attitudes.
"Our shark fin business has dropped considerably. Environmental groups are writing such bad stories about shark fin. A lot of people do not want to buy shark fin now," said Mak Ching-po, chairman of the Hong Kong Dried Seafood and Grocery Merchants Association. He declined to give an exact figure.
Still, some outside observers say conservation activists are waging a tough battle against a deeply rooted tradition.
"The consumption perhaps will drop but it cannot be eliminated," Hong Kong Chefs Association chairman Andreas Muller said. "Some restaurants may boycott shark fin, but there are others who will continue. It's a custom – same as eating sausage in Germany."
Lee, the Facebook campaigner, acknowledged that for many Hong Kongers it's more important to demonstrate their generosity than to save sharks.
"Many hosts still believe that it is an insult to the guests – or 'losing face' – to not serve shark fin soup in a formal banquet," he said.
The Hong Kong government has also been lukewarm. Green Sense reached out to 56 government departments in May, urging them to ban shark fin from official functions. Only 14 departments responded, with just one agreeing to the request.
It's also unclear if the newfound awareness in Hong Kong will filter through to booming mainland China, where increasingly affluent residents are fast developing a taste for expensive dining.
"The mainland Chinese market for shark fin is large, and there is an upward trend because mainland Chinese are becoming wealthier. But I believe changing attitudes here can make an impact on consumption across the border," WWF Hong Kong spokeswoman Silvy Pun said.