More than a third of Hong Kong shark fin products are from threatened species, study reveals

Research calls for more government measures and tighter controls

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 November, 2017, 8:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2018, 6:58pm

More than a third of shark fin products sold in Hong Kong shops come from species that are vulnerable or endangered, a landmark study employing new techniques of DNA analysis has found.

The report, published in scientific journal Conservation Biology on Tuesday, sheds new light on the city’s secretive domestic trade. It also provides fresh baseline data on what is being imported and sold at retail level in the world’s biggest shark fin trading hub.

“What surprised us was that some of the endangered species are the more common ones on the market,” research supervisor Dr Damien Chapman from Florida International University said.

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“So when you have a bowl of shark’s fin soup in Hong Kong, there’s a reasonable probability that it came from an endangered species.”

The research was funded by US-based Pew Charitable Trusts and carried out by the university with the Bloom Association, a non-profit group, and the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden education centre in Hong Kong.

Between February 2014 and February 2015, scientists collected 4,800 random samples of shark fin trimmings from about 300 dried seafood shops mostly in Western district.

Using a sensitive DNA testing technique they developed, the team managed to trace the samples to 76 different species of shark.

Of these, 25 per cent have been assessed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, while 8 per cent are classified as “endangered” ­– both just three to four ranks away from “extinction” status. The union keeps track of animal and plant species worldwide, as well as measures to safeguard them. The red list assesses rare species on a seven-point scale.

While the relatively abundant blue shark is still the dominant species in the market – comprising 34 per cent of samples ­­– the endangered scalloped and great hammerheads and the vulnerable silky shark, bigeye thresher, shortfin mako and oceanic whitetip, were also found to be among the top 20 types.

Three species each of rays and chimaeras – a type of cartilaginous fish – were also found in samples and were being sold as shark fin.

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At least nine of the species in the market are also listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Species listed under this category may be at risk of extinction unless proper controls are implemented on trade.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said only eight CITES Appendix II species were regulated in Hong Kong with a further four being processed. A spokesman said the department was already proposing an increase in maximum penalties concerning offences over Appendix II species.

The last study that looked into the species composition of fins in the industry was a survey in 1999, which only sampled a small subset based on auction records.

“The latest study provides a species list of the contemporary shark fin market which was not previously available to us,” Stan Shea, marine programme director at Bloom, said.

Shea suggested the government mandate proper labelling of shark fin products at retail level, step up monitoring by allowing only some ports to load and unload wildlife products and increase penalties for the illegal trade of endangered species.

Hong Kong traders have long insisted that up to 80 per cent of their products comprised fins from the blue shark.