THE news that Flower Drum, the most high-profile and awarded Cantonese restaurant in town, has stopped serving the most expensive dish on its menu - shark fin soup, $160 a serve - will probably be seen as a sign of tough economic times.
But for those tracking the slow swell of opposition to the practice of shark finning and the alarming plummet in shark populations across the globe, the Flower Drum's decision represents another step towards shark fin soup itself finding a place on the endangered list.
Jason Lui, Flower Drum's manager and the son of it's co-owner/chef Anthony Lui says that taking shark fin soup off the menu is ''something that's been in the back of my mind for a while now''.
''Shark fin soup is one of those status symbol type dishes in Chinese culture, the kind you get served at weddings or business meetings and so on,'' says Lui. ''We didn't sell a whole heap of it to begin with and with the whole drive at Flower Drum for the menu to be more produce-driven, with more free range and sustainable stuff, shark fin soup was looking more and more out of place.''
Some estimates put the number of sharks killed every year at between 70 million and 100 million, with up to three-quarters of these being harvested just for their fins. With the price of shark meat relatively low and the price for their fins often astronomically high (retailing around $US540 for a single fin), the practice of shark finning - slicing off the shark's fins before throwing the still live body overboard to drown, starve or bleed to death - has become increasingly widespread.
The cruelty of the practice and the threat to ocean eco-systems from the depletion of their apex predator (some shark species have dropped 90 per cent in the past 20 to 30 years) has meant that the shark fin issue has started to generate some real heat.
The Australian Anti Shark Finning Alliance (TAASFA) was formed two years ago in Queensland with the aim of reducing demand for shark fin soup through education and information. But its website also includes a ''Wall of Shame'' that lists restaurants across the country offering shark fin soup. Given that these restaurants are nearly all Chinese, the Alliance has been accused of running a racist agenda.
''We often get labelled as racist because the origins of shark fin soup are in Asian countries, particularly China,'' says TAASFA founding director Michael Dowers. ''But the reality is that there are many young people from Asian countries saying the same things we are. In fact, the idea for TAASFA came from a young Malaysian guy I met who runs a group called Save Our Sharks From a Bowl of Soup. It's the younger generation who are moving away from the idea of shark fin soup being a symbol of prestige and wealth.''
Dowers says though he welcomes the news that Flower Drum has removed shark fin soup from the menu, he tends to be a bit sceptical at such announcements.
''We've been caught out before where restaurants remove shark fin from their menu but then keep serving it to those who ask for it specifically,'' he says. ''Hopefully, Flower Drum's not going down that path.''