The dirty secret Hong Kong supermarkets don’t want you to know: they're selling globally threatened species of fish

Local chains are buying from sellers who could be destroying the ecosystem with their fishing practices – and they know it

Lucy Christie |

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Supermarkets in Hong Kong offer a huge variety of seafood, and while all of them claim to comply with CITES, they all sell products on the IUCN red list. Photo: EPA

Hong Kong’s supermarkets have been hiding something from you. Many of them are selling globally threatened species of fish, often bought from companies that could be destroying the ecosystem with their fishing practices. But what is perhaps most worrying is that it’s not much of a secret at all. At least, not as far as the supermarkets are concerned.

The 21 major supermarket brands in Hong Kong – which are owned by a total of nine groups or companies – account for the largest source of seafood sales in the city’s food retail sector. Many people would assume, or at least hope, that selling unsustainable seafood was an accidental oversight of these supermarkets. But every single one of them is selling at least one species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN’s) red list of threatened species.

Young Post asked the major supermarket groups about this, and it turns out that not only are they are aware that they are selling threatened species, they don’t even have any plans to change that.

Emily Wong, the marketing communications manager for CitySuper, said the company was “further studying the possibility of no longer selling threatened seafood species, and finding alternatives to maintain our range of seafood”.

In their defence, supermarkets say they don’t sell species which are listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The difference between CITES and IUCN is that IUCN is an international organisation working towards conservation, while CITES is a mutual agreement between governments. Essentially, CITES is something governments, and therefore supermarkets, have to abide by, while IUCN’s list is not compulsory. But the fact that supermarkets don’t bother adhering to the IUCN’s list, simply because they don’t have to, speaks volumes about their commitment to sourcing sustainable seafood.

A spokesperson for Dairy Farm, the parent company of Wellcome, Marketplace, Oliver’s and ThreeSixty among others, said: “We are aware of environmental concerns including the issue of sustainable seafood sourcing and all products sold in our stores are in compliance with local regulations. Over the years, Dairy Farm has been working to take progressive steps to expand our role in promoting environmental protection. We will continue to work with relevant stakeholders to introduce further environmental protection measures that we may deem appropriate.”

It’s nice to say these things. And maybe some of the supermarkets do have some genuine good intentions hidden under all the PR waffle. But none of the supermarkets that Young Post approached could offer a concrete or defined solution to the problem, or even a tangible plan to show that they were doing anything actionable or measurable to address the issue.

Professor Yvonne Sadovy, a marine life specialist at the University of Hong Kong, has some ideas about why these supermarkets aren’t taking the issue very seriously. She explains that supermarket chains, just like many businesses, probably don’t want to do things they don’t legally have to.

“The IUCN red list is not binding in law [as is the case for CITES listed species] so it is entirely optional for companies whether they sell the species or not. It is possible that companies do not know about the red listing status, or maybe they do not have a CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] mandate that covers sustainably sourced seafood,” says Sadovy.

A spokesperson for ParknShop confirmed these suspicions. “ParknShop strictly follows the CITES guideline throughout the purchasing process to ensure we do not sell the endangered species under CITES. We also go beyond CITES and do not sell blue fin tuna or shark fin,” before adding that they could not offer any information on the IUCN list.

Jovy Chan, Senior Sustainable Seafood Programme Officer for WWF-Hong Kong, echoes this sentiment, saying that while Hong Kong is a signatory on CITES, the city does not have any legislation regarding species on the IUCN list. She does add that WWF is already in talks with the major supermarkets chains, asking them to develop a comprehensive action plan to promptly address these issues and put in place sustainable seafood policies.

Of course, while many of us care about the ocean and the future of our planet, not everyone takes the problem seriously. “Maybe [the supermarkets] just don’t care,” Sadovy says simply.

Some would argue that the responsibility lies with the consumers, but both Sadovy and Chan agree this is not the case.

“It is the responsibility of the supermarkets to decide whether or not to sell threatened species,” says Sadovy.

Chan agrees, adding: “Supermarkets source and sell large quantities of seafood from around the world, so they are one of the major influencers on the global supply chain of seafood.”

Chan also highlights that supermarkets have the power to choose where their seafood comes from - an opportunity consumers don’t have.

“Supermarkets also have the bargaining power and potential to play a much more proactive role in bring sustainable seafood to the market,” says Chan.

Ultimately however, the issue of sustainable seafood is a shared one that the entire planet is responsible for. If we don’t want to treat the Earth with the same disregard as Hong Kong supermarkets are currently doing, the first step is realising the issue exists in the first place. Only then can we as consumers start to make the best possible choices, and hopefully influence the corporations to do their part.