Many of those sharks ended up in soup bowls on the dinner tables of luxury hotels, restaurants and banquet halls in Greater China. Rather, it is more accurate to say that only parts of those sharks, the fins, were offered on menus. The rest of the bodies were often discarded and left to sink back down to the bottom of the ocean. Sharks, which need to continue swimming in order to breathe and continue preying on the lesser animals of the ocean, obviously cannot do so without their fins.
On Tuesday, the Chinese government was swayed by the arguments of animal rights groups and some of its politicians on the immorality of eating shark fin soup. The Chinese State Council announced that it would begin banning shark fin on state menus for official functions and banquets. The original proposal to do so was put forth by some 30 deputies of the National People's Congress.
But as the population of the rich and well-to-do has risen in China, so too has the demand for shark fins.
The soup, long a delicacy in Asia, is a symbol of status served at major events such as weddings, business occasions or political gatherings -- like a fine steak, foie gras or caviar. Fins are first dried so they can be stored and transported. The actual cooking and preparation takes long hours, including stewing the fin in a mix of broth and delicacies such as fragrant shiitake mushrooms and sweet bamboo shoots, as well as top-grade wines and soy sauces. It is, without a doubt, one of the most coveted delicacies on Earth.
It's a billion-dollar industry, but the price of its product has been running up the costs for state functions, and the government is eager to demonstrate a more conservative side after recent accusations of extravagance and graft.
Grace Gabriel, the Asia Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), an animal charity and research group, says that the announcement [from China] was several years in the making, and largely influenced from high-level politicians who have themselves grown increasingly concerned with how the eatting shark fin reflects upon the public's perception of the elite.
State media such as Xinhua report that the government says it will roughly take three years to implement the current ban. Even then, one has to wonder whether the central government would really be effective in forcing the item away from local politicians or convincing private consumers and restaurants across the country.
However, many hope that the example set by the government will encourage others to stay away from the dish.
Andy Cornish, the director of conservation of the World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong, told the New York Times that the development was a very positive step forward. Cornish thinks the new policy will send a major message to average citizens and shift their choices, although it remains largely uncertain whether consumer behavior will change in any dramatic ways.
The government in China is powerful, and if it takes the lead on this issue, I don't see why others shouldn't follow suit, Bertha Lo, a program director at HKSF, likewise told CNN.
The numbers say it clearly: It's an appetite that's hard to curtail. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an environmental advocacy group, says that in 1996, only 15 shark species were in its globally threatened species list. In 2010, 181 different kinds of shark were on that list.
In Hong Kong, a major retail hub for shark fin, the price can go from $250 to over $4,300 for around a pound of high-quality dried fins. Luxury restaurants such as the one in the Grand Hyatt hotel in Beijing can offer the soup for as much as $70 per bowl, perhaps higher depending on the species.
IFAW said back in 2010 that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites, meant to curtail illicit animal trafficking, has failed to protect sharks in the past. Gabriel, the Asia Regional Director for IFAW, says that today more countries have realized the precarious status these shark species are in and the threats from international commercial trade is increasing.
The conservation argument has already convinced many around the world to swear off shark fishing. The state of California, for example, bans the possession and sale of shark fins. Chinese basketball superstar Yao Ming has pledged not to eat the product. Some hotels and restaurants in Hong Kong have already taken the item off their menus entirely. The Shangri-La hotel chain said back in January 2012 that it would no longer be serving shark fin in any of its facilities. The Hong Kong government has so far refrained from any official bans itself, likely concerned about impact on the local economy.
Time is not on the sharks' side, despite their having been around for 400 million years. But rising awareness of the risks to their survival may push more local and national goverments to follow Beijing's example.