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China's latest food fashion has no flavour, dubious health benefits and an extravagant price tag. But the demand for shark-fin soup has reached such heights that it is threatening the world's shark population and provoking gangland slayings.

In the latest upsurge of violence linked to the lucrative shark-fin trade, three Chinese businessmen and a security guard were brutally killed Friday -- possibly with a spear gun -- at a fish export factory in Fiji. Two Chinese men were detained for questioning.

Police suspect the execution-style slayings were conducted by Chinese organized-crime gangs that have infiltrated the shark-fin business, which has produced huge profits in recent years. Chinese gangs have also been blamed for the killings and attempts on the lives of rivals in the shark-fin trade in South Africa and Hawaii.

Hong Kong alone is importing more than $160-million in shark fins annually. A single wedding banquet can require the fins of up to 40 sharks.

Although the soup is popular in Japan and other Asian countries, mainland China is now the world's largest shark-fin market, importing as many as 4,000 tonnes of fins each year, compared with just 31 tonnes in 1980.

The dramatic growth in demand has encouraged fishermen to hunt relentlessly for sharks, trawling with thousands of hooks on fishing lines that stretch for several kilometres. They often slash off the fins and dump the rest of the shark -- still alive -- back into the ocean, knowing that they can sell the fins for up to $660 per kilogram. A single fin from the largest species, the basking shark, can sell for $13,300 in Asia.

Once considered a luxury for emperors and aristocrats, shark-fin soup has become a status symbol at wedding banquets and business dinners across Asia. With a small bowl selling for as much as $130 at restaurants, the dish is seen as a prestigious way to show off wealth and impress clients.

It is a classic example of a luxury good that gives "face" to the Asian who can afford it.

"Ten years ago, it wasn't very popular," said Francis Ng, a Malaysian who has worked in the restaurant business in China for the past 12 years. "Now it's a way to show how rich you are. If you have a top VIP dinner, this soup is big face."

At the Gloria Plaza hotel in Beijing, where Mr. Ng is the food director, shark-fin soup is a popular dish at the Sampan restaurant. A small 50-gram bowl of "superior" soup sells for $40, while a special order of the most expensive soup (which can take as many as five days to prepare) costs up to $320 per person.

"Rich and famous people like to order it," Mr. Ng said. "It's a must at VIP functions."

It is fashion, rather than flavour, that drives the shark-fin business. Shark meat has a pungent and unpleasant smell when freshly caught. To get rid of the smell, the fins need to be boiled for two or three days. The resulting needles of cartilage have virtually no taste.

Chefs must use all of their ingenuity to dress it up in ways that appeal to Chinese tastes. The Sampan restaurant, for example, offers shark fin braised in abalone sauce or chicken broth, stir-fried with scrambled eggs, double-boiled with bamboo piths or served in a whole papaya.

If not for fashion and status, shark fin would have little appeal in China. "I don't think it's anything special," a 29-year-old Beijing woman said. "Nobody would choose it in private."

One joke, popular on Chinese Web sites, tells of a nouveau riche Chinese businessman who invites his village friends to a banquet to show off his wealth. One of the villagers, not realizing that he is eating shark-fin soup, grumbles that he has never had such bad-tasting vermicelli.

Restaurants have tried to promote shark-fin soup as a health food, an aphrodisiac for men and the secret to a beautiful complexion for women. But scientists say it has no particular health benefits, aside from the normal protein that it contains. In fact, because of the mercury that accumulates in shark tissue, the fins could actually be a threat to those who eat large quantities.

With an estimated 100 million sharks killed by humans every year, some shark species have suffered a 90-per-cent drop in their population in the past 15 years. Environmental groups say the shark-fin trade is one of the main reasons and argue that it could lead to the extinction of an animal that has survived in the oceans for 400 million years.

Environmental lobbyists are calling for stricter management of shark fishing, including a global ban on "finning" -- the practice of hacking off the fins and discarding the rest of the shark.

"Sharks reproduce extremely slowly and they simply cannot survive the heavy overfishing," said Victor Wu, a campaigner in Singapore for WildAid, a U.S.-based environmental group. "They could take decades to recover from this -- if ever."

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