Hong Kong is at the heart of the shark finning trade. A cruel yet lucrative practice, shark finning profoundly affects the world’s oceans, wreaking havoc on the fishing industry and disrupting the delicate marine ecosystem. Andrea Richey, the advisory board chair of Hong Kong Shark Foundation, explains how the city’s cultural traditions and position as a global trade hub contribute to the problem.
Living in Hong Kong for the last 25 years, Andrea Richey is an ex-lawyer turned head hunter turned NGO Advisory Board member. She joined the Hong Kong Shark Foundation in late 2015 and has been instrumental in ramping up social media outreach, fundraising campaigns, awareness initiatives and educational programs. The main objective? To get people to stop consuming shark fin.
1. Saving sharks, saves oceans
Who’s older: the dinosaur or the shark? Sharks are older, of course. The species is 400 million years old. People don’t realize how long they’ve been around and how quickly we’re decimating their population. Scientists estimate that 100 million sharks are killed every year, and the ramifications are terrible.
When I talk to kids, I say that sharks are the police officers of the ocean and when they disappear, things get out of control. They are apex predators in the food chain and they sit at the top for a reason. They play a critical role — there’s a delicate balance of the ecosystem, and the biodiversity.
It’s called the cascading effect. A great example of that was on the east coast of the US. The fishing industry collapsed there, because when the shark population declined, it allowed a smaller predator fish to run rampant and destroy the scallop population.
2. Hong Kong is at the center of the shark fin trade
Of the 100 million sharks killed every year, 50 percent of the trade is coming through Hong Kong. We are trying to convince restaurants that they need to change from a social responsibility standpoint. We’re also working with shipping and airlines to stop them from bringing them through Hong Kong. The WWF-Hong Kong has done a great job of getting 16 shipping lines to commit to turning away shark fin.
In 2012, the Chinese government said no more shark fin will be served at government banquets. The Hong Kong government followed suit in 2013 and banned shark fin from government events. But we see that consumption is very strong still. We did a survey in January [of 2016] of 375 out of like 2,000 restaurants in Hong Kong. We found that 98 percent are still serving it.
3. Shark fin soup drives demand in Asia
A traditional Chinese wedding should have sea cucumber, fish maw, sea anemone and shark fin. They say if you have those four things, your marriage is sure to be successful. And it’s not just weddings, it’s anniversaries, Chinese New Year, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, business meetings. It’s a status thing.
For every wedding in Hong Kong that serves shark fin soup, we estimate at least 30 sharks die. That number is debated, and some say higher, but that’s a modest estimate. The irony is that shark fin has no taste. It’s cartilage. It’s a bit like the rhino horn issue. So the flavor comes from the soup broth, and you could do it with anything – there are plenty of substitutes. It’s a bit of a scam, frankly.
4. The practice of shark finning is still commonplace
Why are they killed in this brutal way? You’re a poor fisherman off the coast of Yemen, or Indonesia, or the Galapagos — if you catch a shark you know there’s a huge market in China and Hong Kong. They will take that shark, fin it right there and throw it back in. A big huge shark takes up too much room in the boat, but 10 fins take up less room, and they’re more valuable. The largest consumer of shark meat is Brazil — people do eat it. But it’s not known as a delicacy and the meat itself simply doesn’t fetch such a high price.
5. Sharks are worth more than their fins
It’s a multi-billion dollar industry globally. In Hong Kong, I’ve heard of estimates up to US$2.6 billion, but we hear different figures all the time and it’s nearly impossible to quantify. I think it’s really important to show that you can still make money from sharks, through eco-tourism — not by hurting them. In the Philippines, there are eco tourism ventures to showcase the whale sharks.
One good example of eco-tourism is in the movie “Racing Extinction.” In that movie, fishermen in Indonesia went from killing rays (flat sharks, basically) to taking divers and tourists to swim with the rays, thus promoting conservation and learning the economic value of keeping rays around. In the diving industry, more and more people are getting into diving, especially in China, and with that will come more education about the oceans and the need for biodiversity. When there are jobs, food and tourism coming from sharks, it’s easier to accept their value.
By 2048 the UN warns that fish stocks will collapse if no action is taken. This is a global issue. Sharks play such a vital role in the ocean and without them it will affect everything.
I would like to see people stop consuming shark fin. The demand for shark fin in Hong Kong alone has in large part been responsible for the global crisis facing the world’s shark populations that we see today. In addition, the practice of finning is both cruel and brutal and needs to stop.
In the future, I would like to see all Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong step up and be global leaders in this crisis and ban shark fin soup outright as a matter of conscience. Eventually there will be insufficient sharks to supply the trade and restaurateurs and wealthy companies will be forced to find other alternatives — but by then the damage will be done.