Shark fin imports to Hong Kong tumble after airlines refuse to carry them

Head of industry association says misguided conservation campaign and weak economy are driving down demand - and fishermen are losing jobs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 6:12pm

Shark fin imports to Hong Kong have fallen by up to 30 per cent since the launch of a campaign to stop airlines and shipping lines bringing in the controver- sial product, says an industry spokesman.

Ricky Leung Lak-kee, chairman of the Hong Kong Marine Products Association, told the Sunday Morning Post the shark fin industry had been hit hard by the campaign launched last year, combined with an economic slowdown and the mainland's anti-corruption campaign.

He accused the coalition of 60 green groups behind the campaign of putting fishermen out of work. "They protect the shark but they never think about the livelihood of these poor people," he said.

Hong Kong is the global hub for the trade - which environmentalists say encourages the cruel practice of finning and puts shark populations at risk. The city imported 1,162 tonnes of shark fins in 2012, according to government figures, roughly half the world's harvest.

A letter-writing campaign by a coalition of environmentalists, including representatives from Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd and the Humane Society International, has led to airlines including Qantas and Air New Zealand introducing total bans on shark fins, while Cathay Pacific has said it would now only carry shark fins from sustainable sources. Middle Eastern airline Emirates last week became the latest carrier to announce a total ban on shark fin cargoes, and the campaigners say at least two major shipping lines have announced they will no longer carry the product.

Leung said: "Since the environmentalists launched their very critical attacks on the industry … the import of shark fin has been reduced by between 20 and 30 per cent. The industry is having a very hard time and some people are leaving their jobs.

"The impact is enormous. The drop is not only due to the campaign, it is also due to the very weak economy in Hong Kong and in China, so demand for shark fin has dropped."

The mainland's anti-graft campaign had also affected demand, he said.

Leung argued: "Everyone is suffering but the people who suffer most are the very poor fishermen in very poor seaside areas, like India and the coastal countries of Africa, and Latin America. "All the fishermen are very poor. If they were not poor, they would not go out fishing for sharks … [The green groups] protect the shark but they never think about the livelihood of these poor people. It is terrible. People in my industry might switch to different businesses. But the poor fishermen, they have no alternative."

Leung said that the shark fin industry followed regulations laid out by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and did not catch sharks classified as endangered. "Only a few sharks have endangered status," he said. "We have more than 400 species in the ocean.

"They [the green groups] only show consideration for the sharks. But look at the map and see how big the ocean is. The sharks are there. Sharks will never be extinct."

He asked: "Are they all vegetarians? No. What about slaughtering cattle? What are they talking about? They must be insane. Eating people's livelihoods - isn't that cruel? It is ridiculous."

Leung said he believed the industry could recover if the campaign ended and the economy improved. "A lot of people are aware that these groups are distorting the story. They will realise the truth and they will eat shark fin as usual," he said.

Alex Hofford, executive director of MyOcean and instigator of the campaign to stop shark fin imports, said he was "not surprised" at the estimate of a 20-30 per cent slump in imports.

"We have heard similar figures anecdotally," he said, insisting the campaign would continue. "If you go to Sheung Wan [where importers are based and shark fin is often put out to dry on sidewalks and rooftops], you will see much less shark fin than before.

"It shows that our conservation efforts globally are having a significant effect on this abhorrent trade."