Shark fin lovers attending an upcoming Chinese government soirée may be disappointed to find the delicacy off the menu.

A worker carries the frozen carcass of a shark on his shoulder at a slaughterhouse in the town of Puq, in Zhejiang province, on July 25, 2011. (Reuters)

But the ban won’t happen overnight. Chinese officials estimate that a complete halt to the serving of shark fin soup at official events may take up to three years.

Although it remains unclear how the Chinese will implement the ban, environmentalists working in both the United States and China hailed the news, saying it signaled a major shift in how people around the world view the ocean’s top predator.

“Finally we are seeing important steps being taken by China, the world’s largest consumer of shark fins, to help protect sharks from this massive and mostly unsustainable trade,” said Crawford Allan, director of TRAFFIC North America, a regional office of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Along with Hong Kong and Taiwan, China is a principal contributor to the rapid decline of the worldwide shark population. Those states account for more than 95 percent of the annual shark harvest, according to the Global Times, an English-language newspaper based in China.

Consumption of shark fin soup dates back to the Sung Dynasty, between 960 and 1279, when members of the elites began eating noodles made from the needles in sharks’ fins. The dish grew popular during the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century, when it became a staple menu item at formal banquets. While shark fin soup was frowned upon after the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, it has rebounded in the past two decades as a show of respect for wedding guests and business associates.

Several studies have shown that sharks generate more revenue in dive and snorkel tourism than they do when killed for their fins. Australian researchers determined that a reef shark off the Pacific island country of Palau is worth $1.9 million to the national economy over its lifetime, and shark tourism brings Palau $18 million annually.

“The move in China definitely shows there’s a global trend of people recognizing sharks are worth more in the ocean than in a bowl of soup,” said Beth Lowell, campaign director for the advocacy group Oceana.

Scientists estimate that between 26 million and 73 million sharks are killed each year as part of the shark fin trade, while millions more are killed accidentally by vessels fishing for tuna, swordfish and other species. Additionally, one-third of all shark species face some threat of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

While the United States represents just a fraction of the global shark fin trade, several U.S. states have instituted bans on the sale, trade, possession and distribution of shark fins. On Sunday, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signed such a ban into law, saying, “By limiting the market for shark fins, we can help sustain and grow shark populations around the world.”

Four other states — Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii — have imposed similar bans. But Christopher Chin, who serves as executive director of the San Francisco-based Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education and helped write the Illinois bill, said the law was significant because it “reflects the importance of our ocean’s fragile resources to everyone, including those thousands of miles from the shore.”

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