There is growing public support in China for the need to protect the world's dwindling shark population, but little understanding about the connection between conservation and shark finning, according to a survey.
Shark fin, once offered as a gift to emperors, is traditionally served at Chinese wedding banquets and occasions when the host wants to impress guests with expensive and unusual dishes.
Some also believe it is good for health.
The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates 100 million sharks are caught each year, though experts say the real figure could be twice that, leading to a dramatic drop in the populations of some species.
"If you can stop people consuming shark fin soup, it would relieve a huge pressure on the species," Steve Trent, president of conservation group WildAid, told Reuters at the unveiling of the survey.
"This is something where individuals at home, work and places of entertainment, can have a real impact," he added.
Activists say finning is incredibly wasteful, with sharks simply dumped overboard to bleed to death after their fins have been hacked off. The industry disputes this, saying to be that wasteful makes little economic sense.
In China, which accounts for more than half global shark fin consumption, people know little of the problem, thinking sharks are fierce killers, and that eating their fins is good for the health and a demonstration of wealth, the survey found.
In fact, dogs kill far more people a year than sharks.
"We spoke to the manager of a restaurant, who told us, sure, we support shark conservation," said Liu Zhong, one of the survey's authors. "But he said serving shark fin is highly profitable and that can't stop just serving it in the name of conservation."
Indeed, more than three-quarters of the respondents did not even know exactly where shark fin came from nor how it was gathered, added Trent. In Chinese, the word for shark fin literally means "fish wing".
Eating it can in fact be bad for the health, due to high concentrations of mercury in the fin, Trent said. To raise awareness of the issue, WildAid had begun screening short television infomercials using Chinese stars like basketball player Yao Ming, and was planning to step up the publicity push ahead of next year's Beijing Olympics, Trent added.
The new campaign was going to use more Chinese sporting heroes and be made public shortly, he said. "There will be a massive opportunity there," Trent said of the Olympics. But he also conceded that it would be tough to change attitudes. "It's not going to happen overnight."