The campaign against the consumption of and trade in shark-fin products is gathering strength in Hong Kong. Perhaps this is a good moment to summarize some of the key developments as well as the challenges around educating consumers about this unsustainable dish.
Globally, shark populations are in rapid decline as a result of overfishing. In some regions, populations have fallen by as much as 90%. While there are no accurate estimates as to the contribution of shark finning to the global shark trade, this much we know: Each year tens of millions of sharks are killed to satisfy the appetite for shark-fin related products worldwide – a situation that is driving many species toward extinction.
Official statistics are likely to underestimate global shark catches by an astonishing three to four fold. Accurate data on shark populations and their demise is difficult to ascertain because of data deficiency. IUCN figures from 2010 suggest that of the 258 shark species where there is sufficient data to determine conservation status, 56% are at high risk of extinction.
While the precise nature of the impact of declining shark populations on the marine ecosystem is difficult to predict, as apex predators the ecological value of sharks is indisputable.
Data shows that 50 percent of the shark fin trade is through Hong Kong, while estimates are that 90 percent of consumption occurs in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Singapore. The demand for shark fin soup in Asia is largely driven by its status as a symbol of wealth.
In just three years, Hong Kong has seen the emergence of nine local and international NGO campaigns focusing on reducing consumption of shark fin. For the first time, comprehensive scientific surveys on consumption habits, toxicology research and trade/market surveys are in progress and will provide essential data to educate and inform both the public and policy makers.
During this period, ADMCF has played an integral role in defining Hong Kong’s shark conservation strategy through its support of WWF Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, BLOOM Association and “Man & Shark” photojournalists Alex Hofford and Paul Hilton, as well as facilitating collaboration between the many groups.
The activities of the NGOs and their campaigns have resulted in the shark fin issue climbing the public agenda in Hong Kong and the next 18 months will be crucial in effecting long term change. Recently, Legislative Council member, Hon. Audrey Eu, requested the moribund Hong Kong government to clarify its position on serving shark-fin soup at official banquets and to release information about how often the dish was included at state functions.
She also asked the government whether or not it was educating the public about the ecological damage caused by excessive consumption of high-value shark fins, which are often hacked off the still-alive marine animals. The shark body is then discarded in a practice widely condemned for its wastage and banned in U.S. and other waters.
The predictable response from HK Secretary for the Environment, Edward Yau at a Legco meeting on January 12 was that because of budgetary constraints, not much shark-fin soup was served at official functions but that detailed information on this was impossible to gather. “We do not think it is appropriate to lay down guidelines to regulate the kind of food to be consumed in official banquets and meals,” Yau said.
Further, Yau hid behind the traditional government line, which is that HK follows CITES, which allows the trade in all 468 shark species, except the three listed in the CITES appendices, Great White, Basking and Whale Sharks.
The reality is, however, that CITES is primarily a trade rather than a conservation body and as such is inherently political, motivated by issues beyond protection of species. CITES last year at its Doha meeting failed to include eight severely threatened shark species, including the Scalloped Hammerhead, among its appendices, because member states with vested interests were unable to reach agreement. Even the critically endangered Blue Fin Tuna is not listed by CITES.
Still, the campaign against the consumption of shark-fin soup is building in Asia. Illustrating the reputational risk to companies ignoring the issue, shark conservation organizations recently were successful for the second time in pressuring a Hong Kong bank to withdraw a shark fin soup promotion. Working together, several marine conservation groups launched a campaign against Dah Sing Bank, which had announced it would offer a shark-fin soup banquet for 12 to new borrowers. After a few days of intense adverse publicity, the bank withdrew the offer.
Last summer, following similar pressure, Citibank Hong Kong withdrew a shark-fin soup promotion and asked its employees to avoid the delicacy during work events. Hopefully, other financial institutions locally will also recognize the reputational risk around promoting or even serving shark fin soup at banquets.
WWF and other conservation organizations in Hong Kong such as Bloom Association, the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, Green Sense, Greenpeace, Shark Savers and others are working to draw attention to the need to protect sharks.
WWF has managed to persuade many corporations in Hong Kong such as HSBC, the Hong Kong and China Gas Company, Hang Seng Bank, Swire Properties, University of Hong Kong, Canon Hong Kong to adopt a no-shark-fin dining policy ( http://bit.ly/dtkHA1 ). Hong Kong Observatory, and 180 primary and secondary schools also have made a similar pledge.
The developments in Hong Kong have come at the same time as exciting international legislative changes this year, including the May 2010 passage of a senate bill in Hawaii that prohibits the sale, possession and distribution of shark fin in the state. The Commonwealth of the North Mariana Islands signed in to law a similar bill in January and in the same month, President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act, prohibiting finning at sea and dictating that all sharks must be brought into port with their fins attached. Washington State, California and Oregon are all in the process of proposing comparable legislation.
As NGOs and their campaigns on shark-related issues have built over the last 18 months, ADMCF has developed a strategy of support for 2011 based on twelve months researching the issues, assessing the approaches and identifying funding gaps.
The Foundation is committed to supporting a multifaceted and co-ordinated approach that targets consumption. Supply side initiatives, whilst important, are problematic because of the highly secretive nature of the trade and the extent of resources that would be needed to address the issue from this perspective. ADMCF’s shark initiative has been supported by a generous donation from Guy and Yan D’Auriol.
Note: Photo of shark fins by Paul Hilton