Air Pacific accused of hypocrisy over shark fins cargo

Fiji's national carrier has been accused by activists of hypocrisy for backing conservation for public relations while flying fins to HK

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 May, 2013, 8:53am

When Hong Kong couple Cloudy and Stephen served up a banquet free of shark's fin soup at their wedding in December, their gesture towards conservation won them a honeymoon in Fiji, courtesy of the national airline Air Pacific.

The pair won a contest run by the Hong Kong Shark Foundation called Happy Hearts Love Sharks aimed at encouraging newlyweds to set an example by eschewing the dish blamed for encouraging finning and depleting shark populations.

For competition sponsor Air Pacific - which will be renamed Air Fiji in June - it was an ideal opportunity to promote their twice-weekly direct flights to Hong Kong by offering free tickets to Fiji to the winners.

As she collected her prize, Cloudy declared: "We believe in love and in the balance between nature and humans. I hope the competition will be held annually to educate people and change the unsustainable and cruel practice of shark-finning forever."

Air Pacific, for its part, trumpeted on the competition website: "We are proud to support the Happy Hearts Love Sharks wedding contest, because shark tourism is an important source of revenue for the local economy and because Fijians have long respected sharks.

"Our ancestors viewed sharks as gods who kept the community safe from harm and they would feed sharks, not hunt them. Today, this tradition is continued by local villages having jobs as shark feeders who dive with tourists so that they can experience the beauty of sharks in their natural habitat."

Five months after Cloudy and Stephen's Fiji honeymoon, however, Air Pacific's environmental boasts have a hollow ring as a letter signed by a coalition of environmental groups accuses it of carrying shark fins as cargo on passenger flights to Hong Kong.

The letter, whose 78 signatories include Animals Asia founder Jill Robinson and Ric O'Barry, star of the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, claims that a "substantial amount" of the shark fins imported to Hong Kong by air in 2012 was flown here on Air Pacific planes.

If the environmental groups are right, the extraordinary irony is that Cloudy and Stephen may have unwittingly been sitting on top of a cargo of shark fins as they flew back from the honeymoon they won for refusing to serve the dish at their wedding.

Suspicions about Air Pacific's role in the shark fin trade were triggered by a speech given by Secretary for Transport and Housing Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung in March at a welcoming reception for a new Airbus A330-200 on the airline's Hong Kong route.

In what has been taken by campaigners as a veiled reference to shark fins, Cheung said: "There were only 45 tonnes of cargo being carried between Hong Kong and Fiji in 2009. By the end of last year, the cargo volume was close to 1,000 tonnes.

"Thanks to the close aviation links, we in Hong Kong can now enjoy various kinds of seafood products from the South Pacific as Fiji is one of the major exporters of fish and fishery products to Hong Kong."

Alex Hofford, director of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, said of the 20-fold leap in airfreight tonnage from Fiji to Hong Kong in just three years: "It's not pineapples or electronics that are being flown here from Fiji - you can be sure of that."

His suspicions were confirmed, he said, when a group of pilots familiar with Air Pacific's operations subsequently told him the new Airbus was "basically a thinly-disguised freighter" carrying shark fins to the territory from Pacific islands, which use Fiji as a trade hub.

Shark fins harvested from the Cook Islands and Vanuatu were shipped to Fiji and appeared to be making their way to Hong Kong on the Air Pacific flights, many of them to be sold on to the mainland China market, Hofford believes.

"You may be on an Air Pacific flight where you think 'This can't be making money - the plane is empty'. But the fact is it's full of cargo," he said. "They can afford to lose money on the passenger side because they're making money on airfreight."

As pressure from the anti-finning lobby mounts, Hofford believes Air Pacific may be in part taking up the slack from Cathay Pacific, which last year bowed to pressure from environmental groups and halted all shark-fin cargoes - estimated by activists to have been as much as 650 tonnes in 2011.

Asked about the letter from the environmental groups, Air Pacific's manager for public relations and communications Shane Hussein said: "We can confirm that the conservation groups have contacted us. We are investigating the issues they're raised, and will respond to them shortly. We have thanked them for bringing this issue to our attention."

He declined to comment on whether the airline thought it was appropriate to sponsor the anti-shark fin competition in Hong Kong while apparently carrying the product as cargo.

Conservationists in Fiji have recently voiced concern that local fishermen were taking up shark finning - the practice whereby sharks are caught only to have their fins sliced off and are then left to die - in increasing numbers.

Shark finning is still legal in Fiji despite efforts by some legislators to have it banned. Nanise Ledua, co-ordinator of an ongoing shark count in the archipelago of more than 320 islands, told Radio Australia in February there was evidence of a worrying rise in finning.

"There are many coast fishermen, local coastal fishermen, who are into the trade. They sell fins to the markets and middle men here in Fiji," Ledua was quoted as saying.

"It's a source of income to them and they consume it too. For them it's a win-win situation [and] they cannot understand the importance of these animals on our marine ecosystems."

In their letter to Air Pacific - copied to a number of senior tourism officials in Fiji - the coalition of environmental groups appeals to the airline to give a clear undertaking to stop carrying shark fins.

"Hong Kong government data indicates that more than 1,162 tonnes of shark fins were imported into Hong Kong in 2012, of which 14.1 per cent was by air cargo," it said. "Of that percentage a substantial amount would have been flown to Hong Kong on Air Pacific's planes.

"As you may already know, Cathay Pacific took a great step in the right direction last September by making a public commitment to stop carrying shark fins and related products on its subsidiary airline, Cathay Pacific Cargo.

"As a code share partner, this places Air Pacific in a difficult position regarding the continued revenue stream enjoyed by your airline from the transportation of shark fin."

Hong Kong Shark Foundation programme director Bertha Lo said she had no inkling Air Pacific might be carrying shark fins when she approached the airline to sponsor the 2012 competition.

"We were collaborating with them at that stage," she said. "They were so willing to help. They said 'no problem' and were very easy-going about it."

Lo has since posted a message on the airline's Facebook page reproducing the letter and saying: "Shame on Fiji as Air Pacific emerges as a huge carrier of shark fins into Hong Kong."

Sandy Macalister, executive director of the SPCA and one of the signatories of the letter to Air Pacific, said there had been "huge change and momentum" in attitudes towards shark fin in Hong Kong in recent years.

Pledges from major hotels and Cathay Pacific to stop serving and carrying the product had helped the movement, he said, and had led to an increase in the number of people declining to serve shark's fin soup at banquets and celebrations.

However, he warned there was still a long way to go and said the question was whether the change was happening fast enough to save threatened shark populations.

"The key to ending the whole destructive process is still, to a large extent, in the hands of consumers," Macalister said. "Although it's not happening quickly enough, things are changing for the better and I do believe that more people are realising there is greater satisfaction in saving a shark than there is in eating one - and that displays of humanity are a better way to define affluence and prosperity."

Campaigners admit to a degree a frustration at having so far been unable to build on the momentum created by the breakthrough moments when the Peninsula and Shangri-la hotels announced they would no longer serve shark's fin soup.

"We still have a long way to go," said Lo. "There are only one or two active organisations and conservation groups working on the issue. We do our best but don't have enough resources. We are pushing as hard as we can but progress is slow.

"But I believe the Hong Kong public is ready for change. We've run many campaigns and we really don't have a problem convincing the public to support us. The challenge is mostly with the corporate world and businesses. We need more hotels to support us. The largest consumption of shark fin is at banquets, which are usually held at hotels. I don't think refusing to serve it would hurt their profit margin too much but they could make a big difference."

This summer, campaigners hope to reignite the movement with a major campaign led by Shark Savers and the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, which will include celebrities speaking out against the menace of finning.

The campaign will start in June and include school presentations and art exhibitions.

Lo said she hoped the campaign would ultimately lead to a discussion with the government over legislation against the shark-fin trade.

"We hope to at least open a dialogue with the government and legislators," she said. "We want to meet and have a proper discussion about the whole issue to bridge the knowledge gap in the Legislative Council and policymaking departments.

"We are hoping for legislation on [shark fin] trade at least. There are different opinions on whether the time is right for a full ban.

"There is a knowledge gap on the subject even among members of the government. They are not really well versed on the subject of why sharks need to be protected. We need to do it step by step and let them know why they should do something about it. Then we can talk about how far we can go."

A petition launched last week by another group of campaigners calling on the Hong Kong government to introduce a total ban on the sale and possession of shark fins in Hong Kong had by yesterday gathered more than 2,100 signatures out of a target of 100,000.

Cloudy and Stephen, meanwhile, are understandably upset over the controversy, which has cast a shadow over the honeymoon they spent scuba-diving and enjoying the pristine beaches of Fiji.

"We didn't know about any of this," Cloudy said. "My first feeling is 'What a shame'. They shouldn't export shark fins. They know it's not a good practice otherwise they wouldn't have supported the competition. But this is a demand driven world and that's not the responsibility of Air Pacific alone.

"I personally feel disappointed but I also understand that they have to strike a balance between economic growth and environmental protection. If everyone makes an effort and spreads the message, demand will decrease and supply will also decrease. I hope this can happen soon."

For the time being, Air Pacific's corporate logo remains on the Happy Hearts Love Sharks competition website.

It was even invited by the Hong Kong Shark Foundation earlier this year to sponsor the 2013 competition - an invitation sent out shortly before suspicions about the airline's role in the shark fin trade surfaced.

"Unlike last time, we didn't get any response to this invitation," Lo said. "In fact, we're still waiting for a reply."