Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Shark fin trade threatens some shark species

Slowly but surely, Hong Kong is waking up to the realities of the shark fin trade, which is threatening several species with extinction.

Earlier this month, Hong Kong University banned serving shark fin dishes on its campus and, next year, the territory is expected to introduce legislation to force traders to obtain licenses for the import and export of whale shark, great white shark and basking shark species, all of which are supposedly protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.

But Hong Kong's efforts to control the shipments of endangered species fall far short of saving the three shark species, a leading conservationist and a legislator said.

The three species face extinction from what conservationists estimate is a 100 million shark-a-year cull to feed a cultural specialty particularly popular in South China - shark fin's soup.
However, the bill will do little to protect shark species, said Choy So- yuk, chairperson of the Legislative Council committee studying the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Bill, though she says it's a start.

CITES is an international agreement signed by 170 countries to ensure trade in wildlife does not threaten species.

"We are only trying to [bring] Hong Kong [in line with] the international convention, and the convention only requires further protection of these three additional species," said Choy, a Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong legislator.

There are still places all over the world where the trade is virtually without management, she said.
Local conservationist Brian Darvell, an ocean conservationist and shark protection advocate, said: "The three [species] are not the only ones in trouble. We would hope for and encourage more proactive steps so that [dozens of] species on the [World Conservation Union] red list in various stages of endangerment ... are also included voluntarily by the government."

But, he said, the proposed bill "is an important step, and it's overdue, because many countries have taken this move well before. And it's a little odd that Hong Kong is slow in that respect, but better late than never."

Chiu Ching-cheung, chairman of the Shark Fin Trade Merchants Association, said if there is a total ban on the import of the three types of shark, business will not be affected because the three endangered species are not popular with locals.

"Basking sharks, whale sharks and great white sharks ... their fins are too big and, therefore, not very popular in the market," Chiu said.

"Currently, there are only one or two local traders selling fin from basking sharks. Their fin is not very tasty."

According to the government, in 2004, China, Spain and Taiwan were the three biggest shark fin importers.

China imported 20.6 percent, Spain 18.4 percent and Taiwan 10 percent of the total 11 million kilograms imported, bringing in HK$2.6 billion.

One thing that upsets Chiu is what he claims are environmental groups presenting misleading facts that make traders look bad.

"Extinction is not determined by environmentalists, but by experts with real figures," he said.
"Traders agree that sharks that are on the verge of extinction should be protected."

A Hong Kong Worldwide Fund for Nature online study of 932 locals, conducted last month, showed that 58 percent ate shark fin soup at celebrations and that only 28 percent ate it because they thought it tasted good.

Five percent believed the fins had health benefits.

"When asked whether a wedding banquet was better if it included shark fin soup, around 40 percent agreed to some degree, while the remainder had no opinion or disagreed," said the study. Typically, sharks are taken on board boats and, after their fins are slashed, they are dumped overboard, where they sink to the bottom and drown.

The issue for conservationists is that there is no effective monitoring system in Hong Kong to determine where the shark fins come from.

Paul Hodgson, a coral reef specialist who lives in Sai Kung, said the government needs to look at the possibility of creating sustainable fisheries for sharks.

He said people could get rich by supporting the live shark trade.

"There is no sustainable source of sharks at the moment," he said. "There is a tremendous opportunity for someone in the industry to develop one."

Hodgson added that he did not want to stop people from eating shark fin and that his activism did not come from a distaste for Chinese culinary tradition.

"I will fight for a person's right to eat shark fin - as long as it's sustainable," he said.

Choy said the chances of such a sustainable industry in Hong Kong are close to zero.

"Even if we try to create a new habitat [it's a question of] whether or not we can maintain the conditions. Our waters might not be clean, because Hong Kong is a very heavily populated area," she said. "At the moment we are not an important habitat."


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