The mystery of the missing shark's fin
For marine conservationists, the whereabouts of thousands of tonnes of shark's fin imported annually into Hong Kong is a mystery yet to be solved.
While restaurant owners and traders have reported a fall in sales, government trade figures suggest otherwise.
As the world's biggest importer of shark's fin - a Chinese delicacy blamed for pushing rare shark species into extinction - Hong Kong has seen steady imports of 9,500 to 10,500 tonnes a year in the past 10 years.
However, government statistics showed a steady drop in the re-export of the fins, including the mainland - the No 1 destination. That suggests more and more stock must be staying in Hong Kong - either being consumed or saved up as reserve. However, restaurant owners, wholesalers and retailers all tell a tale of falling sales.
So where did all the fins go?
A closer look at the figures suggests the drop in re-export to the mainland market was the main reason behind the falling number of outgoing fins. However, local traders say exactly the opposite is the case - the fall off is only on paper as mainland traders find ways to get around custom inspections.
According to the Census and Statistics Department, re-exports of shark's fin to the mainland dropped from 8,626 tonnes in 2003 to 3,028 tonnes in 2009. Last year Hong Kong Customs and Excise reported only 939.4 tonnes were shipped across the border during the first 11 months.
A major local shark's fin trader says mainland shoppers continued to be his biggest clientele, only the trading method has changed.
'We do not ship them the stock any more. Mainland shoppers now come directly to our shops with huge luggage bags, load them up with fins and carry them home,' says Kwong Hung-kwan, who has a trading company and shop in Western specialising in shark's fin.
The shoppers also come with vans and trucks, but Kwong says he has no idea how they take the goods home. 'A snake will have a snake's way,' he says.
The situation can be traced back to 2003 when Hong Kong ceased to be a processing centre for unfinished shark's fin products. Without value-adding processing, the fins became a taxable trading item for mainland authorities when they were re-exported from Hong Kong. These hefty duties - which can be up to 40 per cent of the total stock price - provided mainland traders with an incentive to find a way around the rules.
Following the change almost half of the city's 100-odd traders were squeezed out of the industry.
The Shark's Fin and Marine Products Association, a group comprising most of the city's remaining traders, says the figures are misleading.
'In the old days, China made up only about one third of the total re-export market, nowadays the share is around three-quarters,' says group council member Lam Chan-shun. 'Mainlanders, especially those from the Pearl River Delta, are definitely looking for more shark's fin, not less.'
China also imports shark's fin directly from other countries but as Hong Kong does not impose any tax on imported fins, it has became a haven for fin smugglers from the mainland.
If most of the imports are really sold elsewhere, as claimed in the statistics, there may be grounds to believe that consumption of the delicacy is on the decline, or at least not increasing.
The Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades estimates orders from the 2,000 local restaurants that serve shark's fin dishes have shrunk 5 per cent in the past decade despite a boom in the banquet business.
'There are more banquets alright, but in the last three years about 10 per cent of the hosts have replaced shark's fin with other ingredients. Meanwhile, price-sensitive restaurants serve smaller portions,' federation president Simon Wong Ka-wo says.
A federation survey showed that the number of banquet tables jumped 40 per cent from 1.8 million in 2000 to 2.5 million in 2009. But Thomas Woo Chu, managing director of Hsing Kuang Restaurants Holdings, which owns 25 branches of five different eateries, says the portion of shark's fin served per table was halved as prices jumped 30 per cent in the past three years.
As mainlanders have grown in prosperity, demand for shark's fin has surged and merchandisers are fighting for a limited supply from Africa and the Middle East. That has pushed prices up 30 per cent for expensive species like tiger sharks, which now cost up to US$170 per catty, up from about US$120 three years ago.
'In the old days, restaurants may have served up to 400 grams of shark's fin for each table, now you get maybe 150 grams,' Woo says.
The Shark's Fin Trade Merchants Association, which represents 90 per cent of all wholesalers in Hong Kong, says sales have definitely dropped over the years.
'Both restaurants and retailers are making smaller orders. Housewife orders have almost gone completely,' association chairman Chiu Ching-cheung says.
While it should be good news for green activists, Silvy Pun Yuen-yiu, project co-ordinator of global conservation body WWF, which has run a long-standing campaign to protect precious marine life including sharks, says she will not indulge in the unproven optimism. 'Figures provided by local authorities are usually credible, and the industry has reasons to play down the consumption pattern to avoid criticism, so we will not step down our efforts in the campaign,' she says.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the number of endangered sharks, rays and chimeras has increased from 15 in 1996 to 126 in 2008.