Hong Kong shark fin imports ‘halved since 2007’, thanks to tighter regulations and shipping bans

Two-fifths of global shark fin stocks pass through the city to other destination markets, and falling numbers show a ‘promising’ trend, green group says

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 March, 2018, 8:08pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2018, 6:57pm

Shark fin imports to Hong Kong, the world’s largest fin trading hub, have been cut by half since 2007 owing to shipping bans and tighter international regulations, according to a conservation group.

Between 2007 and last year, re-exports also dropped by three quarters, suggesting a “declining market for shark fin in mainland China”, WWF-Hong Kong said. Two-fifths of global shark fin stocks pass through Hong Kong to other destination markets.

The group called the results compiled from government data “promising” and an indicator that environmental campaigns, including mounting pressure on shipping companies to stop carrying the fins, as well as improved monitoring of shipping documents, were paying off.

“Sharks have a very important role to play in balancing the ecosystem and some species are already facing catastrophic declines,” said Dr Andy Cornish, who leads WWF’s global shark and ray initiative. “A 50 per cent drop in imports [to Hong Kong] would have been felt by shark traders around the globe, and should result in less pressure on shark populations.”

In 2007, Hong Kong imported 10,210 tonnes of shark fins as conservation efforts began to pick up pace. By 2013, the city’s annual volume dropped to 5,412 tonnes and last year it was down to 4,979 tonnes. Re-exports also fell from 5,683 tonnes in 2007 to 1,434 tonnes in 2017.

Shark fin protest draws 50 activists outside HKU branch of popular restaurant chain

“We started to get a bit worried in 2016 because imports remained flat starting from around 2014,” said Tracy Tsang, WWF senior programme officer for oceans sustainability. “This was despite more shipping companies banning the carriage of fins.”

About 90 per cent of shark fins are imported by sea. But shipping lines accounting for at least 80 per cent of the market have already implemented some restrictions on fin carriage since 2010. The latest to do so was X-Press Feeders this month.

In 2017, WWF suspected that loopholes in shipping regulations were allowing the transport of fins to continue. Miscommunication and – deliberate or unknowing – mislabelling of bills of lading and customs declarations were identified as key problems.

A guideline for firms, urging them to take note of such discrepancies, was published that year. According to Tsang, import figures began to fall significantly in the second half of 2017.

While there is limited data to confirm that local demand is falling, Tsang said the fact that the stocks retained in Hong Kong – the difference between imports and re-exports – fell by 22 per cent over the decade suggested changing patterns of consumption.

The steepest decline in imports was recorded between 2011 and 2012 after dozens of major corporations and hotels pledged to go “fin-free” or provide alternative menus.

In 2013, both the mainland and local governments banned the serving of shark’s fin soup at official receptions. China also began a crackdown on extravagant banquets as part of its anti-graft drive.

Shark fin still on most Hong Kong restaurant menus for Lunar New Year banquets, study finds

Another factor for the decline cited by the group was the inclusion in 2014 of more shark species in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Under the clause, export countries are obliged to prove that trade in a species is not detrimental to its survival.

Species added to the appendix include silky sharks, thresher sharks and scalloped and smooth hammerhead sharks. All are commonly found in the Hong Kong market.

Only a dozen of the 465 species of sharks worldwide are listed on the appendix despite 25 per cent of species being threatened with extinction – almost entirely due to overfishing.

Around 100 million sharks are killed every year mostly for their fins, but increasingly, for their meat as well, according to WWF.

The group urged more companies to go fin-free and for legal agencies to tighten enforcement.

According to customs data, there were 23 seizures of regulated shark fin imports between 2014 and 2017, but none resulted in penalties.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department is proposing an increase in maximum penalties concerning offences over Appendix II species.