KESHA WEST, REPORTER: The remote reefs of the Pacific used to provide some sanctuary for sharks. But now even there the illegal fishermen are coming.
DR MARK MEEKAN, AUSTRALIAN INSTITUTE OF MARINE SCIENCE: Reefs that used to be protected throughout their Pacific used to be protected by their remoteness and their difficulty to get to, are now having illegal fishermen visit them routinely. Some of the reefs I've just been to in Palau in fact have been stripped of all their sharks.
KESHA WEST: And it's the same story right around the world. In the past three decades global shark populations have plummeted by as much as 90 per cent in some areas.
The sharp decline has been blamed on the shark fin trade.
MICK DOWERS, THE AUSTRALIAN ANTI SHARK FINNING ALLIANCE: A lot of these sharks are dragged out of the water, they're still alive and their fins and tails are hacked off. The shark flesh is virtually worthless. The shark fins are worth hundreds of dollars a kilo.
DR MARK MEEKAN: There's a massive demand out there and a growing demand for shark fin and that means that the fishing pressure on sharks keeps increasing. And these animals simply can't take that sort of fishing pressure.
KESHA WEST: The shark fins are used to make the expensive delicacy shark fin soup ,which is popular in Chinese restaurants around the world, but its biggest market is in China itself.
DR MARK MEEKAN: Shark fin soup's been around in China for millenia. But in the late 17th century there was an emperor who codified the laws for banquets, and he basically said that the first course you should serve in any good banquet should be shark fin soup. And you serve that because it's a rare commoodity and it shows your guests you have wealth.
Now, in a China with a growing middle class, there are a lot of people out there who want to display their wealth and they want shark fin soup.
KESHA WEST: WildAid says the shark fin trade has doubled since the early '90s and is now thought to be worth close to $1 billion. To supply that surging demands, tens of millions of sharks have been killed each year. Wild Aid says the total figure is close 73 million sharks annually.
(Footage of WildAid campaign ad)
In 2006 it launched a major campaign across China, to increase public awareness of what goes in to making the famous soup.
MAY MEI, WILDAID CHINA: Most of the people didn't know, the shark fin is from the shark, because in Chinese language shark fin literally translates to fish fin. So they didn't even know it was a fin from shark.
KESHA WEST: The organisation enlisted the help of the biggest sporting names in China to help spread their message.
(Footage of campaign even with Chinese sporting figures)
Not only did the campaign manage to turn around public opinion, but it now seems to have swayed the views of those right at the top. Earlier this month the Chinese Government announced it would ban the serving of shark fin soup at official banquets within three years. The surprising move has been applauded by conservationists, but criticised for its apparent slow implementation.
In Australia, shark finning at sea, where the shark s are caught their fins cut off and their often live bodies thrown back overboard, is illegal.
But Mick Dower says flaunting of the law is not uncommon.
MICK DOWER: You have to land at the whole shark, fins attached. But the problem is as soon you step foot off the boat, as soon as you're on dry land you can have as many shark fins in your possession as you like, basically no questions asked. And the problem with our law is that there's a very small risk of apprehension, detention, prosecution and successful conviction of shark finning at sea.
KESHA WEST: And then there are the illegal fishermen coming in from neighbouring countries to fish Australia's northern reefs.
In 2004, Dr Mark Meekan travelled with Customs officers to assess the impact of overfishing in the north.
DR MARK MEEKAN: At the height of the problem in the mid-2000 and 2007, Coast Watch was seeing 4,000 boats, shark fishing boats year off the Northern Australia coast, a sighting rate of about 22 boats per day. It was a massive effort.
KESHA WEST: The boats, he says, were mostly coming from Indonesia.
Five years later, he says, the boats have all but stopped because the reefs have run out of sharks.
But the shark fishing elsewhere hasn't. Indonesia is considered the biggest shark taking country in the world and one of the biggest suppliers of fin.
KETUT SARJANA PUTRA, CONSERVATION INTERNATIONAL INDONESIA: The Indonesian government has the intention to stop the shark finnings from the areas. But the Indonesian government is now still looking for a scientific informations what would be the impact and how should they do the sharks - to ban the shark finning for the countries like this.
KESHA WEST: Until those laws are put in place, there's still no restricts on what or how much is taken.
Ketut Sarjana Putra, from Conservation International in Indonesia, has been working with the government and local communities to encourage shark fishermen to find other ways of making a living from sharks.
KETUT SARJANA PUTRA: There are other ways to do of taking benefit from shark, for example, by creating ecotourism for sharks in Indonesia.
KESHA WEST: WildAid's message is a simple one: when the buying stops, the killing can too.
Despite its win with the Chinese Government it has no intention of relaxing its campaign in China.
MAY MEI: We are going to work more closely with government and also with consumers to build an educational campaign. We always hope to get more support from the business leaders, restaurant owners and hotels.
(Footage of WildAid public service announcement from China)
KESHA WEST: Last week, it launched a new series of public service announcements. This time bringing on board the country's top CEOs to help spread their message.
(Excerpt from WildAid public service announcement in China)
VOICEOVER (Subtitles): When the buying stops, the killing can too.
KESH WEST: But the lure of the increasingly valuable shark fin trade will be a hard win one to give up.