Underwatertimes.com News Service - November 10, 2006 17:28 EST

A new wildlife conservation report that rising demand for shark fin cuisine is endangering sharks has divided China's chefs, but may fail to convince connoisseurs to abstain from their favorite dish.

Qu Hao, former chef with the three-star Feng Ze Yuan hotel, said the consumption of shark fin would probably decline after a report released in Beijing on Wednesday at the World Conservation Union Species Survival Commission's Shark Specialist Group.

Sarah Fowler, co-chair of the group told the conference that about a third of the 450 shark species were threatened with extinction or were close to being threatened.

Fowler warned that if current trends continued, the world's shark population would be depleted in 10 years.

A WildAid report said a major reason for the sharp decrease in shark numbers was the soaring demand for shark fin on the international market, especially in China and southeast Asia.

Qu, the chef, said previous articles reporting that shark fin contained hydrargyrum that might cause male sterility if consumed in large quantities would contribute to its declining popularity.

However, Niu Yunting, a chef at the state-run Wanshouzhuang Hotel and chairman of the Chinese Shark Fin Cooking Research Society, disagreed.

He said traditional dining habits were difficult to change and he foresaw no change in the popularity of shark fin.

Prices for shark fin varied from 1,400 yuan (US$175) to 4,000 yuan per kilogram and the value increased during the preparation and cooking, which could take two to three days, Niu said.

"In Chinese culture, a banquet with expensive shark fin dishes shows how much a hospitable host respects his or her guests," Niu said.

However, he advocated the "rational and moderate" consumption of shark fin.

"Some wealthy people eat shark fin just to show off. It's an attitude that I cannot accept," Niu said.

Li Weilin, 25, a Cantonese shark fin soup connoisseur, said shark fin was part of the traditional southern Chinese cuisine.

Shark fin was historically believed to be nutritious, and as time went by, its scarcity had given consumers social status.

"There is an old saying that 'no banquet is complete without a shark fin dish,' which stresses the role of shark fin in Chinese cuisine," Li said, adding that tradition demanded shark fin be served to important guests.

The annual shark fin trade has reached around 10,000 tons and Hong Kong alone imports about 52 percent of the total.

Li Yanliang, deputy general director of the Aquatic Wild Fauna and Flora Administrative Office under the Ministry of Agriculture, said China's fisheries did not specialize in catching sharks. Shark catches were strictly regulated in accordance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, said Li.