A small seaside town on China’s eastern coast is the centre of the country’s shark trade, according to a Hong Kong-based conservation group.
Alex Hofford, co-director of WildLifeRisk, said he had seen about five to six shark-processing plants in Puqi about 50 km northeast of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province.
The conservation group has alleged that one of the plants processes hundreds of endangered specimens of shark a year to make products such as health supplements and meat for restaurants.
Watch: Massive shark slaughters in China revealed by a Hong Kong conservation group
Hofford said a whale shark caught anywhere along the coast from Shandong province in the north to Guangdong in the south could be transported to Puqi by truck within three days.
“If you go in summer, there are fields and fields of fins being laid out to dry,” he said.
He said a network of factory agents who operate across the coastal provinces would quickly buy up any whale sharks caught either intentionally or as by-catch and arrange a flatbed or refrigerated container truck to transport them to Puqi.
Some large whale sharks caught in recent years have reportedly sold for as much as 200,000 yuan (HK$254,000).
Hofford said he had also heard reports of other shark processing plants at Xiamen in Fujian province.
Whale, basking and great white sharks are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. China is a signatory and bans the export of products that come from endangered species.
An official at the Bureau of Fisheries, which is under the Ministry of Agriculture, said the hunting and sale of the three shark species was illegal on the mainland and punishable by a fine or jail sentence.
The official, who declined to give his name, said there were no shark-fishing boats on the mainland and any by-catch of the species had to be reported.
But he admitted the sale of whale sharks could be carried out at night, under cover of darkness.
WildLifeRisk was tipped off about a shark factory at Puqi owned by Yueqing Marine Organisms Health Protection Foods by a local conservation group.
They visited the plant three times from 2010 to 2013 posing as buyers.
General manager Li Guang allegedly told the group that in 2010 the factory processed about 10,000 tonnes of whale and basking sharks, about 500 to 600 caracasses, and that most of his clients were in Canada.
WildLifeRisk said DNA tests of shark liver oil samples given by Li confirmed traces of basking and great white sharks.
Li said yesterday he did not have any whale sharks at his plant and he did not know if he had basking sharks or great whites. He declined to give further details.
A factory worker at the plant said it mainly processed ribbonfish, but sharks sometimes swam into nets and fishermen would sell the animals.
He said this was common practice, but fishermen did not know which species they were catching and they were usually small species.
A 2012 joint study by Murdoch University and Shandong University “strongly indicated an emerging crisis for whale sharks in China”, said Brad Norman of the former’s Centre for Fish, Fisheries and Aquatic Ecosystems Research. “There is no targeted whale shark fishery in China at the moment, although with the high prices now being paid for shark fins, this is likely to change.”
He added that Puqi’s 20 seafood restaurants serving “shark feasts” was turning the township into a tourist attraction.
“Puqi has 20 local seafood restaurants that feature a ‘shark feast’, marketed on nutritional value, which is making the city a famous attraction for tourists. This means competition for large-sized sharks remains fierce,” Norman was quoted in the joint study.
Hofford said dietary supplements made from shark oil and cartilage were available in pharmacies all around the world. He said some of the whale sharks processed in Puqi were caught in Philippine, Indonesian and Mexican waters and the processed products were then exported to North America and Europe.