Hong Kong green group targets shippers in fight against shark fin

WWF-Hong Kong says 16 out of the world’s top 20 shipping lines have banned carriage of the product; it wants more to follow their example

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 May, 2016, 12:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 May, 2016, 7:38pm

Having major shipping companies go “shark-fin free”could be a quicker and more effective way of curbing demand for the product than focusing solely on sales and consumption, according to a conservation group.

A new WWF report says 16 of the world’s top 20 shipping lines have banned shipments of shark fin. The group is now aiming to get more lines on board.

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The shippers – which include giants such as OOCL, Maersk, Hyundai and MOL – account for 60 per cent of the global industry.

WWF-Hong Kong senior programme officer Tracy Tsang Chui-chi said it was important for shipping companies to understand the different types of legal, environmental and reputational risks of carrying shark fin, especially if the stock was not legally sourced. “We hope peer pressure will influence more companies to join,” Tsang told the Post.

Around 90 per cent of the shark fin trade is seaborne.

“We want to look at a new angle to escalate change,” said WWF conservation director Gavin Edwards.“Stopping carriage of shark fin would mean traders and restaurants would not have access to shark fin, and we move that much more quickly to becoming a shark-fin free city.”

Scientists say one in four shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction. Hong Kong, as a major transshipment point and source of demand, is at the centre of this long-running conservation battle.

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But Edwards said a change in tactics did not mean efforts to promote awareness among traders, restaurants and customers should be reduced. “Traders are simply not interested in a move to sustainability, and carriage bans are a simpler way to proceed,” he said.

In January, a Shark Foundation study found 98 per cent of 375 restaurants surveyed still served shark fin, undermining a common belief that local consumption was declining.

Earlier this year, OOCL, the line owned by the family of former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, said it would no longer accept cargo bookings for whale, shark and dolphin as part of its “commitment to sustainability” and industry best practices.

Fin traders say “unfair” limitations on shipping will further harm traders in an already difficult business environment. Shark Fin Trade Merchants Association chairman Ho Siu-chai said most air carriers were already refusing to carry the product and banning carriage was akin to “disrupting free economy and trade”.

“These devils [conservationists] are ruining jobs and lives,” said Ho, who claims his industry has shrunk “80 per cent” in five years.

Joining WWF in announcing details of the report at the Maritime Museum in Central on Tuesday, Tim Smith, chief representative of Maersk Group in North Asia and chairman of Maersk China, said the company chose to ban the transport of shark fins mostly because of difficulty in distinguishing fins that could be legally transported from those that could not.

But Smith said difficulties remained in implementing the ban given the massive amount of cargo his shipping company had to handle daily.

“In reality, some reports [on products] don’t reflect accurately what product it is,” Smith said. “It becomes very much more difficult for us, just for one carrier, to take out everything and test to see what’s inside.”

Maersk, with the largest share of the world’s liner fleet, was the first shipper to place a ban on shark fin cargo, in 2010.

Environment undersecretary Christine Loh Kung-wai, who also attended the announcement on the report, said she welcomed the collaborative effort of shipping companies and non-governmental groups to stop the transport of shark fins.

But Loh said it was difficult for the Hong Kong government to completely outlaw the shark fin trade in the city.

According to WWF, Hong Kong is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and only eight shark species had been placed under Appendix II of the convention as of last year.

Appendix II lists “species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled”. But the “international trades in specimens of Appendix II species may be authorised by the granting of an export permit or re-export certificate”.

“Provided you have the right permit, the trading of shark fins, even those of the eight shark species, is still legal in Hong Kong,” Tsang said.

Tsang added it was known that some traders mix shark fins or marine products that can be traded legally with shark fins banned from trading.