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Endangered species such as bluefin tuna and shark can still be found on the menus of some of the world’s most respected restaurants. As the debate between restaurateurs and environmental campaigners continues, we look at the evidence.

There is an asterisk on the menu of the London outposts of Nobu, the celebrated chain of Japanese restaurants famous for its sushi, that states: “Bluefin tuna is an environmentally threatened species. Please ask your server for an alternative.” It's a small piece of punctuation that refers to a large ecological issue. What’s more, it highlights the increasing problem of how fine dining restaurants deal with an increased awareness of wildlife issues amongst customers. Bluefin tuna and shark– once staples of certain upmarket eateries but now widely considered endangered species – are being questioned as appropriate ingredients for menus with morals.

In scenes reminiscent of PETA invading the catwalk shows of fashion designers who use fur, protesters are demonstrating at famous restaurants around the world, angry at the presence of these fish on the menu. In the last few months alone, Nobu – which serves bluefin in sushi and sashimi dinners for £32.50, toro tartar with caviar for £17.50 and seared toro with miso for £19.50 in its London restaurant – has been targeted by campaigners in London, Los Angeles and New York.

“Eating bluefin tuna is like tucking into a rhino burger, or a tiger steak,” Willie Mackenzie of Greenpeace told London’s Daily Mail. “Nobu is serving up an endangered species, and profiting from pushing it towards extinction.”

Supporting Greenpeace in its efforts are a cast of famous names and former Nobu devotees. Elle Macpherson, Sting, Charlize Theron and Sienna Miller, amongst others, recently signed an open letter addressed to Nobu Matsuhisa, the restaurant’s founder. “As customers and fans of Nobu, we feel strongly that blue fin tuna must be completely removed from your menu due to its perilous position as an extremely endangered animal,” they wrote. “The possibility that the magnificent bluefin tuna, one of the fastest creatures on the planet, could be extinct in as little as four years, is a tragedy.”

As these environmentally conscious celebrities attest, the evidence that stocks of bluefin tuna are depleting rapidly is compelling. According to research by the WWF, bluefin tuna is as close to extinction as the panda or white rhino and could be extinct by 2012 if fishing regulations are not amended. It is these statistics that persuaded President Nicholas Sarkozy to call for a ban on the international trade in bluefin tuna. “Ours is the last generation with the ability to take action before it’s too late — we must protect marine resources now, in order to fish better in future,” he recently declared. “We owe this to fishermen, and we owe it to future generations.”

Britain has also announced it will support measures to add bluefin tuna to the list on the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). A vote on the proposed ban will take place in Doha, Qatar, in March next year.

Nobu is not the only restaurant whose menu is causing controversy. Earlier this year, the China Tang restaurant at The Dorchester Hotel, London, removed shark fin soup from its menu after being pressured to do so by environmental campaigners. Protesters say that the practice of ‘finning’ sees sharks removed of their fins before being thrown back in the sea to bleed to death. Research suggests that up to 20 species of shark of in danger of becoming extinct.

The problem erupted again after conservationalist Lord Anthony Rufus-Issacs was apparently offered the soup at China Tang “off menu”. A war of words conducted by email between Lord Rufus-Issacs and the restaurant’s owner, the entrepreneur David Tang, culminated in a definitive statement that China Tang does not serve shark fin soup. Campaigners note that the ban only applies to Tang’s London restaurant and shark fin soup can still be found on the menu at its sister restaurant, Island Tang, in Hong Kong.

Why the resistance to remove these endangered fish from the menu? During the row between David Tang and Lord Rufus-Issacs, it was suggested the answer is one of culture. In China, shark fin soup is served on special occasions as a celebration and as the country has prospered, so has the demand for shark. Similarly, the reason that Nobu has not yet removed bluefin tuna from its menu is said to be because of resistance from its Japanese chefs. In Japan, bluefin tuna is prized above all other types of sushi and chefs pay huge sums for fish of the highest quality.

Until legislation is changed, it would seem that diners must be vigilant about what exactly they might be ordering from the menus of high-end restaurants. Or, as with other purchases, diners might be advised to read the fine print.

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