City Weekend

‘Imagine eating a panda’: Wildlife campaigners urge Hongkongers to give up shark fin as animals face extinction

Shark’s fin soup, considered a symbol of wealth, has been a mainstay of the Chinese wedding banquet for hundreds of years, but the tradition is contributing to the deaths of 73 million sharks annually

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 April, 2017, 10:32am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 April, 2017, 1:46pm

Consuming shark fin is almost like “eating a panda”, wildlife campaigners say, referring to the animals’ vulnerable conservation status, as they urge Hongkongers to stop eating the delicacy.

Some endangered shark species being imported illegally into the city could be extinct in less than two decades, they stress, while experts emphasise sharks are vital for maintaining the balance of the marine ecosystem.

Shark’s fin soup, considered a symbol of wealth, has been a mainstay of the Chinese wedding banquet for hundreds of years, but the tradition is contributing to the deaths of 73 million sharks annually.

Scientists also suggest that eating it has no medicinal or health benefits, and could be harmful because of the levels of mercury and dangerous toxins it contains.

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Hong Kong Shark Foundation spokesman Prentice Koo said local consumers, as well as traders, had an ethical responsibility to stop buying shark fin.

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“Some species are going to be extinct very soon and have decreased 70 to 90 per cent in the past 10 years,” he said. “So you can imagine, you are eating a species that is going to go extinct. That’s probably not right for most people.

“Just imagine you are eating a panda – there could be just a thousand or something left in the world. For some species of sharks, it’s more or less the same case. I guess we better stop buying that kind of product before it’s too late.”

The foundation estimates about 32 shark fin wedding banquets are held in Hong Kong each day, or 11,783 annually, for which about 30 sharks are killed for just one sitting.

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But in a survey conducted with City University last year, the non-profit organisation found that just 5 per cent of wedding guests enjoy eating shark’s fin soup, while 75 per cent were “neutral” about it and 20 per cent expressed “dislike/high dislike”. More than half of the 411 wedding guests surveyed said they ate shark’s fin soup only because they wanted to show respect to their hosts and avoid food waste.

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The foundation used the results last year as part of a high profile anti-shark fin campaign featuring a video of a bride and groom barbarically killing sharks on a boat.

Koo said there was clear evidence of illegal shark fin trading in the city, as “plenty” of endangered species were being sold despite few importers holding licences.

“Because there is [sufficient] stock in the market ... it makes us suspicious about where all this stock is coming from [as] only one certificate was issued last year,” he said. “So we have to really be suspicious ... whether it’s legal, or if it involves smuggling, or some other illegal trading in Hong Kong.”

He added that there was a significant difference in shark fin volumes in terms of dried and wet products, and that unclear labelling meant government data of shark fin imports could be inaccurate.

“The government [has] a database which doesn’t tell the truth, or doesn’t have the details of the shark fin market,” he said. “[This] is exactly the loophole right now in our monitoring system. So illegal trading or smuggling might take place and nobody knows it.”

Declining popularity

Other campaigners suggest that Hong Kong’s days as a major trading hub for shark fin are numbered as a result of changing tastes, tougher regulations and greater environmental awareness among Hongkongers.

Shark fin imports to Hong Kong almost halved between 2010 and 2015, from 9,852 tonnes to 5,717 tonnes.

There are currently eight species of sharks on appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means they cannot be traded unless the exporting state can prove the trade will not affect its population.

Shipping companies and airlines operating in Hong Kong must adhere to this, or face a maximum penalty of HK$500,000 and imprisonment of one year. But once the shark fin reaches seafood shops, it is permissible to sell it without a licence.

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Several more species of shark fin are set to be added to the endangered species list this year – three types of thresher sharks and one species of silky sharks will subsequently be subject to increased protection, campaigners have said.

They report, however, that restricted species are often deliberately mislabelled as “dried seafood” in a bid to avoid penalties.

Despite this, Gary Stokes, South East Asia director for campaign group Sea Shepherd Global, said he was feeling optimistic after recently meeting the city’s customs officials and chiefs of some of Hong Kong’s main shipping lines to discuss tighter restrictions.

He said that the shipping companies and airlines had both been persuaded to upgrade their monitoring system.

Stokes also said he was confident shark fin was becoming less popular among Hongkongers.

“Definitely in Hong Kong, people are becoming more aware and cautious. It is not so common to have shark fin at weddings now.”

Mislabelled goods

In 2015, 92 per cent of Hong Kong’s shark fin imports were brought in by sea, and the rest by air.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), about 20 of the top shipping companies operating in Hong Kong, responsible for 68 per cent of the total shipping industry market share, have now adopted “no shark fin” policies following pressure from campaigners.

The difficulty arises, however, when shark fin is not accurately labelled. Campaigners claim that batches of shark fin are still getting through despite these company bans.

Investigations by Sea Shepherd from last November to January this year uncovered large amounts of shark fin being stored in the city’s warehouses after being imported here illegally.

The non-profit group has said shark fin regularly avoids detection by shipping companies and customs officials because it is mislabelled.

Although only some species require a licence before they can be traded, shipping companies generally prefer to put a blanket ban on importing shark fin, rather face the hassle of rigorously checking individual shipments.

Stokes said he would like to see an HS code, or the Harmonised Item Description and Coding System, introduced in Hong Kong. The system, which is used in the United States and Spain, covers every traded product, which ensures better protection against illegal trading.

But Stokes said traders are uncertain about the code as the added restrictions may persuade some importers to send their products to less regulated countries such as Vietnam.

“We would like to fast track that and get the government to do that here,” he said. “But there is a lot of pushback from traders, because if you make an HS code mandatory, they fear it may put people off doing business in Hong Kong.”

Government action

In 2016, the Hong Kong government said it would analyse the feasibility of switching the city’s trade documentation requirement from post-shipment to pre-shipment, known as the “single trade window”.

If the change was made, Alex Hofford, spokesman for WildAid Hong Kong, said he would be convinced the government was taking the issue of illegal shark fin trading “seriously”. But he said it needed to work harder to lobby vested businesses to support the “single trade window”, as they have been reluctant to do it so far.

“WildAid fully supports the Hong Kong government’s ‘single trade window’ initiative and hopes it can be implemented as soon as possible,” he said.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) said it was “committed to the protection of endangered species including sharks and is vigilant to the smuggling of endangered species across the border”.

A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department insisted it was committed to controlling imports, adding that it worked closely with the AFCD to confiscate any endangered species found during inspections.

A spokeswoman for the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau said it planned to report to the Legislative Council panel on commerce and industry in the middle of this month on the feasibility of a single trade window.

Shark numbers

The first great sharks evolved about 400 million years ago and there are now more than 470 species of the predator in the world.

However scientists say it ­remains difficult to calculate ­precise numbers of sharks.

Conservationists at the World Wildlife Fund estimate that about 100 million sharks are killed ­globally annually.

About 10 million of those are blue sharks killed specifically for their fins. At their current rate of reproduction, sharks cannot make up for this significant dent in their populations.

Some species, including scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini), have declined by up to 90 per cent in the past two decades.

In a 2014 study by the WWF of 539 species of sharks, skates and rays, it was revealed that 4.6 per cent were critically endangered, 8 per cent endangered, 21 per cent vulnerable, 23.9 per cent near threatened and 42.5 per cent were least ­concerned.

Global shark tourism generates revenue of about US$314 million annually, ­according to the WWF.

Five shark species and all manta rays were included in ­Appendix II at Conference of the Parties 16 in 2013, meaning they have much greater protection ­status in relation to trade between countries.

They joined other sharks and sawfishes (elasmobranchs), which had already been included in the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Appendices over the past decade.

Also included in Appendix II four years ago were the oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus), porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus), scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini), smooth hammerhead shark (Sphyrna zygaena), and the great hammerhead shark (Sphyrna mokarran).