Shark fin soup is a delicacy commonly served at weddings and it is so ingrained in wedding culture here that it is always served as the fifth course – right before the couple makes their rounds to greet guests, whom they have just impressed with the most expensive dish of the night.
But in the last two years major banquet halls, hotels and other event venues have dropped the controversial soup as a standard offering on wedding menus. Bird's nest soup, also considered a delicacy, is a popular alternative.
Tracy Tsang, a program officer with the World Wildlife Fund's Hong Kong branch, said a campaign launched in 2010 targeting restaurants and caterers is paying off. So is the public awareness campaign warning people that an increasing number of sharks are threatened with extinction and that shark-finning is a cruel practice because the fish are tossed back into the water to die after their fins are cut off.
It hasn't been easy to change people’s minds though, as older Chinese aren't keen to let go of tradition, Tsang said.
"So we reach out to the younger generation. It's easier for us to spread the shark conservation message to them and they can take it to their parents," she said.
Free honeymoon top prize in shark-free wedding contest
The Hong Kong Shark Foundation is also targeting young couples and last year ran a contest for those who pledged to have shark-free weddings. The group took the idea from the Canadian group Shark Truth and got the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong to be a sponsor.
The battle of the brides for a free honeymoon to Fiji drew 62 entries, and according to the group the contest saved more than 16,000 bowls of shark fin soup from being served. Cloudy Cheung, the winning bride, said her wedding was an opportunity to spread the message about shark conservation.
"I wanted to do something to raise public awareness about protecting the shark," she said. Cheung and husband Stephen showed a video at their reception that explained why shark fin soup wasn't part of the meal.
Some couples have sparked family feuds by not serving the status symbol dish, according to Bertha Lo, a former wedding planner who now works for the Hong Kong Shark Foundation and organized the contest.
"Some went into a Cold War and didn't talk to each other, others just argued and argued until one side backed down," said Lo. "Chinese parents, they have a lot of say in their children's weddings, they're really hard core," she said, adding they're also the ones who foot the bill.
Some parents feel it's disrespectful to guests if shark fin soup isn't served, said Lo. They're clashing with their children who grew up more environmentally conscious and who see the tradition as outdated, she said.
Even though many venues have removed shark fin soup from their standard wedding menus, couples can make special requests for it – and pay an extra premium.
Cindy Carthy, author of a blog called Bridelicious, said some couples in Hong Kong are going shark-free because it's the trendy thing to do. "Young couples are starting to say no to shark fin, but a lot of the time people in Hong Kong like to follow fads," she said.
Fin traders say bans are unfair
Representatives of the shark fin trade acknowledge there is a trend taking hold in Hong Kong, the centre of the global shark fin trade. Ricky Leung, chairman of the Maritime Products Association, said environmentalists have been misleading consumers about shark sustainability and about how the fish are killed.
He said it's "definitely not true" that fins are sliced off and the sharks tossed back in the water to die. If fishermen are doing that they will be caught and punished by maritime authorities, he said. Leung said there are plenty of shark species that are not endangered and that calls for shark fin bans are unfair, unnecessary and hurt poor fishermen.
He also said it’s "ridiculous" to call for a ban on fins, but not on shark meat, skin or other shark products. Leung is aware of the debates in Canadian cities over banning shark fin soup and said Canadians should critically analyze the "propaganda" from environmentalists.
He admits he is concerned about the future of the industry but points out that the demand for shark fin is still strong, especially in China where a growing number of people can afford it.