Hong Kong shark fin traders ‘will be hit hard’ by proposal to protect blue sharks

Major species on market is considered abundant but conservationists are pushing for tighter controls

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 August, 2017, 8:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 August, 2017, 10:17pm

Shark fin traders in Hong Kong could be dealt a devastating blow if one of the most important species for the industry – the blue shark – is elevated to a higher status for protection under a proposal to be considered later this year.

The UN’s Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) will review a plan by Samoa and Sri Lanka to include blue sharks under Appendix II of the treaty in October.

A CMS listing, which aims to conserve migratory animal species, is non-binding, but usually paves the way for an eventual listing on the more influential Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The next CITES meeting is in 2019.

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“A successful CMS listing is generally recognised as the setting of the stage for a legally binding CITES listing ...[where] real power to strangle this immoral, unsustainable and often illegal trade lies,” Alex Hofford, a campaigner for conservation group WildAid, said.

“If we succeed in our fight to list blue sharks on CMS in October, it would put traders on notice that a storm is coming in 2019.”

According to the proposal, the CMS listing would raise awareness of the “need for the management of blue sharks by all range and fishing states” and “ensure that international cooperation is prioritised, with measures adopted by [regional fisheries management]”.

Ricky Leung Lak-kee, chairman of the Hong Kong Marine Products Association, said blue sharks made up 60 to 80 per cent of fins consumed in Hong Kong and that a CITES listing would deal a huge blow to the industry.

“If it really happens, the impact on our trade will be devastating,” Leung said.

The quick, streamlined sharks are considered abundant and one of the most widely distributed species in the world. They are only ranked “near threatened” on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

Many sellers and restaurants have long used the blue shark’s relatively stable population numbers to justify the trade, which supplies the key ingredient for shark’s fin soup, a popular traditional Chinese dish.

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Green groups say the trade in general fuels the brutal practice of finning – where fins are cut off live sharks, with the wounded animals thrown back into the sea to die – and kills more than 70 million sharks a year.

Hofford’s group is lobbying to get the city’s largest catering group, Maxim’s, to stop serving shark fin at its restaurants. It is also pushing for the chain’s logistics service provider, Kerry Logistics, to stop carrying the goods.

Maxim’s previously told WildAid that it sourced fin products “only from blue sharks”, based on their suppliers’ certification and independent tests.

“Should blue sharks end up on the CMS list in October, we sincerely hope this may prompt unethical restaurant groups like Maxim’s, who tout to care for the environment, to drop shark fin from their menus due to extinction risks,” Hofford said.

A spokesman for Maxim’s confirmed to the Post that it only sourced blue shark fin products, which were not regulated or restricted under the current local laws due to a “lower risk” classification on the IUCN Red List.

The restaurant said it had been promoting alternative, shark-fin free menus since 2010 and through its efforts had reduced shark fin consumption by 50 per cent.

“We take responsibility in sustainable sourcing whilst continuing our mission to provide food that follows our customer’s demands and preferences,” he said.

Kerry did not respond to a request for comment.

Due to unregulated blue shark fisheries and their vulnerability as by-catch, or species picked up when ships cast wide nets looking for lots of a different species, the IUCN believes the assessment of the species’ extinction threat is due for an update.

The species is already considered “critically endangered” in the Mediterranean Sea. North Pacific populations registered a 50 per cent decline between 1996 and 2009.

Blue sharks are a dominant species in Hong Kong’s market – the world’s biggest shark fin trading hub – comprising about a fifth of all fins auctioned, by weight, according to some studies.

At US$20 to US$30 per kilogram, it is also one of the cheapest.

Leung, from the Hong Kong Marine Products Association, said: “From our observations, the blue shark is not threatened. They are a highly productive species and widely distributed the world over. In fact, the more we catch, the more of them there seem to be.”

He said he believed a CITES listing would cause traders to leave the already struggling industry and put many of the world’s poorest fishermen out of jobs.

He added that curbing blue shark catches would cause their population to spiral out of control.

“I believe the 170-plus countries party to CITES will assess this according to facts and science,” he added.

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Dr Andy Cornish, global shark programme leader at conservation body WWF International, was sceptical of such claims.

“It may be a common and widely distributed species but not a single blue shark fishery in the world has any catch limits on it,” Cornish said.

“Research may indicate blue shark numbers are stable but if you’ve got no limits, they are probably going to be overfished at some point in time.”

According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, the global capture of blue sharks has more than doubled in the last 20 years – from under 50,000 tonnes in 2000 to more than 120,000 in recent years.

The lack of any official classification also means few importers can determine the species behind fin stocks when they enter Hong Kong, Cornish added.

“Because blue sharks are not on CITES, governments don’t record imports of the specific species. We only have figures based on claims by traders,” he said.

“Essentially, if you’re buying shark fin, you have no idea what country or what species it came from.”

Traders however insist it is not as complicated.

“It’s pretty easy to distinguish the species if you’ve been working in the trade long enough. The expertise we have is the reason why we’re the world’s shark fin hub,” retailer Kevin Ng Yue-hong, who runs a Sheung Wan-based business selling the products, said.