The most effective way to curb shark fin trade in Hong Kong

January 05, 2018 18:26
The lucrative shark fin trade is driving quite a number of species of sharks towards extinction. Photo: AFP

The Legislative Council Bills Committee on the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants (Amendment) Bill 2017 finished its scrutiny last month, and is going to report to the Legco House Committee soon in order to arrange for the resumption of the second reading of the bill.

Once having passed Legco, the new law will enable the government to further tighten regulation of ivory trade in Hong Kong, phasing out the sales of all ivory products in the city in a step-by-step manner, as well as increasing the punishment to combat the crime and illegal trade of wild animals and plants.

As chairman of the bills committee, I strongly believe that apart from ivory trade, we should also pay attention to the shark fin trade, which is driving quite a number of species of sharks towards extinction.

In recent years Hong Kong has witnessed a significant growth in public awareness of this threat to sharks. An increasing number of people are taking shark fin soup off their banquet menus.

However, our city remains the world's biggest trading market for shark fins. In 2016 alone, we imported some 5,700 tons of shark fins.

The greater demand for shark fins and their bigger profit margins, as compared to shark meat, have given rise to shark finning, which refers to the practice of slicing off the fins of captured sharks by fishermen while they are still alive and then throwing the rest of their bodies back into the sea.

Cutting off a shark's fins while it is alive is no different from declaring a cruel death sentence to the animal, because without its fins, a shark can no longer swim, and will eventually die of either suffocation or blood loss.

As top marine predators, sharks can maintain the ecological balance in the ocean and the stability of the marine food chain. However, due to overhunting, mainly for their fins, shark populations across the globe continue to plummet through the years. As a result, the eco-balance in the ocean is also upset.

As such, tightening restrictions on the hunting of sharks and the trade of shark fins in order to save them from extinction has become such an urgent issue that governments around the world, including ours, can no longer afford to skirt it.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has listed 12 species of sharks into its Appendix II, under which the sale of these sharks and their products are only allowed under permit.

In order to execute the related provisions of CITES, the Hong Kong government has also listed eight species of sharks into Appendix II of Schedule I of the current Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance, under which the sale of these sharks, including their fins, can only be carried out by permit holders.

Over the years, our government has focused on fighting the smuggling of these sharks and their products, while ignoring the importance of reducing market demand for shark fins. As a result, our law has proven unable to curb the volume of shark fin trade in Hong Kong.

According to a study conducted by the Hong Kong Shark Foundation last November, currently at least 76 types of sharks and their products are being sold on the open market in Hong Kong.

Among them, nearly one-third have been identified as either “vulnerable” or “endangered” species under CITES, suggesting that there are still major loopholes in our laws that regulate shark fin trade.

In order to address this pressing issue, I strongly urge the administration to further amend the current Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance and enforce a mandatory labeling system of shark fin products as soon as possible. That would enable consumers to check which restaurants or seafood traders are serving or selling fins taken from endangered sharks.

Apart from proposing new laws, the government should establish a comprehensive database on shark fin trade in the city, so that consumers can have access to all the necessary information regarding shark fin products available in Hong Kong such as their species, their number and their places of origin, etc.

Still, the most direct way to protect endangered sharks is to reduce consumers' demand for shark fins, and preserve different types of endangered species to help restore their number to a healthy level, thus maintaining marine biodiversity.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 2

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Member of Legislative Council (Functional Constituency – Accountancy)