For the past five years, ADMCF has worked with conservation groups to generate research, awareness and behavioral change related to the consumption of shark fin soup, which is considered a delicacy in Hong Kong and is served primarily at weddings and official banquets.
There seems to be a misperception by some, however, that this is a single-species issue among a platform of ADMCF initiatives that generally is much broader in tone. Yet, there are at least 507 species of shark and, as apex predators, they are critical to the health of our oceans and our commercial fisheries.
The initiatives against consumption of shark fin soup we support have much more to do with protecting our oceans, which are in significant decline. The numbers vary, but of the 256 species that have been assessed to determine their conservation status, over 50 percent are threatened with extinction either now or in the near future. In some regions, populations of some species have dropped by as much as 90 percent in recent years.
Sharks cannot easily recover from over-exploitation because they reproduce slowly, taking years to mature and producing few offspring. Research points to the fact that if we continue to capture shark at current rates, they simply won’t be part of our ocean life in the not too distant future, with potentially disastrous consequences for us all.
For 400 million years sharks (despite their negative image, largely thanks to Jaws) have helped to maintain and regulate the balance of our marine ecosystems. We don’t know exactly what our oceans would look like without sharks, but we do know there would be much less biodiversity.
Apex predators directly limit the populations of their prey and this, of course, affects the prey species of those animals and so on. Since sharks diets are varied, they can switch food species when some populations are low and thus allow the persistence of species whose populations are low or falling.
An Oceana report details the importance of apex predators to healthy ecosystems, pointing out that not only do sharks affect population dynamics by consuming prey, but they also control the spatial distribution of potential prey through intimidation. In preventing one species from monopolizing, predators increase the species diversity. Without them, there is the possibility of unchecked predation by lower predatory species, the over-consumption of vegetation and increased competition among species.
Still, every year perhaps as many as 73 millions sharks are caught, and many for their fins alone. Data on this is sketchy at best, but although many sharks are brought to shore with their fins attached, others are finned at sea to save space on fishing boats and enabling fishermen to capture more of the highly lucrative trade. In these instances, the bodies are discarded into the oceans in a cruel practice that leads to the shark drowning and wastage of the food.
And based on FAO statistics, global shark catches are likely to be underestimated by an astonishing three to four-fold.
We do know that Hong Kong plays an important role, with around 50 percent of the shark fin trade passing through the city – some of it re-exported legally or illegally to China and the rest consumed locally, mostly at wedding or corporate banquets in soup.
The trade in Hong Kong is unregulated. There is no scientific identification (i.e. genetic test) of imported fins required and for the three species protected under UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the only monitoring is document checking rather than proactive species identification.
Research published in 2006 showed that approximately 40% of the auctioned fin weight in the Hong Kong shark fin market came from 14 shark species listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Recent research in 2011 also confirmed that IUCN Red List Species are being traded in Hong Kong.
And in a precedent-setting move, The HK government announced in early June that the Convention on Biological Diversity has been formally extended to Hong Kong. Under the Convention, each member must draft and implement a Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (BSAP). This presents a new opportunity to integrate biodiversity and conservation into the wider policy agenda.
With the support of Yan and Sandra d’Auriol and Guy d’Auriol, ADMCF has been working with local conservation groups to highlight and advocate against shark finning and the Hong Kong shark fin trade. Over the past five years we have supported research, appeals to the hospitality industry and the rest of the corporate sector to stop serving and consuming shark fin soup.
With local conservation partners, we have worked to build awareness among the general public about the biodiversity consequences of decimating our shark populations. Legislators have been approached to push the Hong Kong government to consider at least ceasing the consumption of shark fin soup at government banquets – something that in reality should be easy since the dish is expensive and should not be paid for by the public purse.
Ultimately, of course, we would like the Hong Kong government to follow the world trend and consider a ban on the shark fin trade here.
The shark conservation movement continues to gain momentum worldwide. In September the U.S. State of California, which is reported to be responsible for 85% of dried shark fin imports into the United States, passed landmark legislation banning the possession and trade of shark fin.
In July 2011, the Bahamas banned the commercial fishing of sharks as well as the import, export and sale of shark meat. In the same month, Taiwan became the first Asian country to limit shark finning by requiring fishing vessels to return to port with the shark carcass intact. Chile banned shark finning and the Inter-American Tuna Commission undertook to protect the distribution of oceanic white-tip sharks.
These actions closely follow U.S. states of Oregon & Washington passing legislation to ban the possession of shark fin earlier this year, Toronto in November. There are efforts in Vancouver and elsewhere to follow suit.
The deepening recognition that banning shark fin is imperative to saving many shark species from extinction has led to a conservation movement unparalleled in recent times. The global action provides an unprecedented opportunity to leverage impact and focus worldwide attention on Hong Kong.
Earlier this year, Bloom released important research on local attitudes to shark consumption that was publicized widely in local Chinese and international media. This research fundamentally changed the debate– from shark fin as an untouchable cultural issue to a global concern characterised by changing local attitudes.
Also this year, Bloom released “A Shark’s Fin,” a short, partly animated film for children to educate and build support from the younger generation. The film had over 5,500 hits in its first three months. Its launch on World Ocean Day reached an audience of 1.5million. The video currently is being distributed across Hong Kong and is targeted to reach 75 schools.
In an encouraging recent decision, in November the Hong Kong & Shanghai Hotels announced a ban on shark fin at all outlets, including its Peninsula hotels, as of Jan. 1. This was a major shift and key step in engaging Hong Kong’s leading hotels on a collective ban.
Conservation International and Bloom are organising a meeting of top Hong Kong hotel executives in January 2012 to discuss what initial steps they might take toward removing shark fin from restaurant menus.
Meanwhile, WWF and the HK Shark Foundation have managed to sign up more than 110 companies and industry groups in Hong Kong to a pledge not to serve shark fin soup or consume other shark products in the course of official business. Many others including the Bank of China have privately committed to follow the ban but have asked not to be named publicly.
Indeed, the number of shark conservation organisations in Hong Kong pressuring the government, the corporate community and the trade is at an all-time high. Social and mainstream media show that public sentiment is shifting and the momentum against consumption of shark fin is continuing to build both here and abroad.
Increasingly, people do understand the importance of sharks to our marine ecosystems. There is little doubt in most minds that protecting sharks is not a single-species issues.