Restaurants in Hawaii are adjusting to the nation’s first total ban on shark fins — a pricey Chinese delicacy that activists are trying to eliminate from people’s diets to save the world’s sharks.
Thursday was the last day the restaurants could legally serve shark fin under a state law enacted last year prohibiting the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins.
The law took effect July 1, 2010, but gave restaurants a year to use up any remaining inventory. Now, restaurants serving fin will be fined $5,000 to $15,000 the first time they are caught. A third offense would result in up to a year in prison and a fine of $35,000 to $50,000.
Royal Garden, a restaurant in the Ala Moana Hotel whose entrance featured giant shark fins in a large glass display case until last year, served the last of its shark fin a week ago, except for a few bits a handful of customers reserved to savor on Thursday. Going forward, the restaurant plans to offer a vegetarian or imitation version of the dish by substituting gelatin for real fin.
"It’s nothing compared to the real one, but that’s the only thing we can do," said Ian Tam, Royal Garden’s manager. He said he would use the alternatives to try to please customers, but he doubted they would be satisfied.
"Just like imitation crab meat — you can tell," he said.
Environmentalists have hailed Hawaii’s law as a landmark development in their campaign to prevent the rapid depletion of the world’s sharks. Data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature say about a third of open-ocean shark species are in danger of becoming extinct, primarily due to overfishing.
The legislation was designed to go a step further than the previous law, which aimed to control shark finning — the act of cutting fins off sharks at sea and dumping their carcasses in the ocean — by banning the landing of shark fins at Hawaii ports. The latest law aims to choke off demand for the product.
Activists say Hawaii has spurred others to follow suit, like Washington state, where the governor signed a bill in May banning the sale, trade or distribution of shark fins. Similar legislation is being considered in California and Oregon.
Relatively few Hawaii restaurants are affected by the law as only about a dozen establishments in the islands served the luxury item. The dish was particularly popular with Japanese tourists because it cost so much less to order here than back home.
Daniel Leung, general manager of Panda Cuisine, a restaurant near Ala Moana Center, said he’s happy with the law. He didn’t want to serve shark fin for environmental reasons, but put it on the menu because big-spending customers wouldn’t come to his restaurant if he didn’t offer it. Now that it’s banned across the state, he doesn’t have to worry about losing any business.
"I really think it’s a good law," Leung said. "We should have had the law a long time ago."
Leung noted shark fin itself is tasteless, so diners will be able to enjoy the same flavor eating the imitation version but spend a lot less for their food.
The flavor in shark fin dishes comes from the ingredients it’s cooked with, like the rich sauce poured over shark fin fillet or the savory pork and chicken base in shark fin soup.