Shark fin clampdown by shipping firms does little to stop Hong Kong imports

WWF-Hong Kong says loopholes in shipping regulations means fins can be hidden, or easily missed, on bills of lading

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 8:17pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2017, 3:22pm

More shipping companies may be banning shark fin from their containers every year, but this has not affected the volume of shark products being imported into Hong Kong, according to a conservation group.

Since 2010, 17 shipping firms, representing 80 per cent of the industry, have adopted shark fin-free carriage policies. But official statistics indicate that imports of shark products – mostly comprised of fins – did not fall significantly between 2013 and 2016.

From 8,285 tonnes in 2012, they dropped sharply to 5,412 the next year following a Beijing’s clampdown on extravagance and corruption. The figure has remained at that level since, even showing a slight uptick between 2015 and 2016 from 5,718 tonnes to 5,775 tonnes.

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WWF-Hong Kong believed that loopholes in shipping regulations were allowing the transport of fins to continue under the noses of these firms.

The group identified miscommunication and – deliberate or unknowing – mislabelling of bills of lading and customs declarations as key challenges.

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On Tuesday, it released an implementation guideline for firms, urging them to take note of such discrepancies.

“Even though shipping companies have been doing a great job taking the first steps to stop shark fin carriage, effective implementation [of their carriage policies] is key to improving conservation,” said senior programme officer Tracy Tsang.

About 90 per cent of shark fin is imported via sea freight. Just 10 per cent comes by air.

In some of the bills of lading samples the WWF studied, commodity descriptions would use misleading labels for cargo such as “dog fish fin” or “dog fish tail”. The dogfish is a type of shark.

In some samples, the commodity name would read “aletas secas de tiburon” – “dried shark fin” in Spanish. “Bills of lading are usually in English, but many companies often have to process shipments from Spanish-speaking countries ... In these cases, a company could unknowingly ship out a consignment of shark fin,” Tsang said.

In some cases, negligence is to blame. A consignment from Guyana made it through to Hong Kong on a liner that had banned fins last year, despite shark fin being clearly listed on the bill.

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Failure to tighten carriage policies could increase the risk of endangered shark species being mixed in with stocks and shipped successfully, Tsang added.

The group urged shipping companies to require traders to provide World Customs Organisation- recognised harmonisation codes to facilitate better screening as well as better training of frontline staff to spot red flags. Furnishing information to customs authorities in advance could also minimise risks of involvement in illegal wildlife trade.

Philip Cheng, a general manger at shipping giant MSC – which banned fin carriage last January – acknowledged there were challenges in implementing fin-free shipping policies but would support the WWF’s guidelines.

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Green groups believe the trade fuels the brutal practice of finning – where fins are cut from live sharks, and the wounded animals thrown back into the sea to die – and kills more than 70 million sharks a year. Overfishing has also put many species at risk.

Hong Kong accounts for 50 per cent of the global shark fin trade and is largely fuelled by demand for shark’s fin soup, a Chinese delicacy.

A three-month probe from November to January this year by non-profit group Sea Shepherd Global found that shipments avoided detection by “misdeclaring” and “mislabelling” shark fins under generic categories such as “seafood” or “dried marine products”.