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Doing shark-conservation work in Hong Kong might sound a little ridiculous, seeing as Hong Kong’s waters are more or less devoid of sharks by now. Sharks are so rarely seen that one-off sightings make citywide news, with the shark inevitably depicted as ferocious and best avoided. When in 2017 one of BLOOM HK’S studies in collaboration with Stony Brook University found in local retail markets the dried fins of at least 76 species of sharks (which by IUCN definition includes rays), it was clear there’s only one way to find sharks here: dead. Having grown up in Hong Kong, it seemed to me that this was the de facto relationship here with marine life. Big fish abound in our seafood-restaurant fish tanks, free only for consumption, and biodiversity is highest in wet markets and dried-seafood stores. Any diver in Hong Kong can tell you that larger fish are extremely rare underwater, and that many species that were historically abundant seem to be no longer present. Local records document that at least 49 species of sharks have appeared in Hong Kong. In the 1960s, sharks were still abundant enough to support several local fisheries that exclusively targeted sharks. Now, sharks are largely absent even in wet markets, meaning that even local fishermen can’t catch them anymore. Hong Kong is one of the world’s key consumer markets for shark fin, and local demand stayed high even after local stocks declined. As we were no longer catching sharks ourselves, the pressure shifted to nearby nations. Then not so nearby. Within the past 15 years, Hong Kong has on record imported shark fins from over 125 countries and territories around the world. A good portion of the fins we import are also re-exported to nearby consumer markets, particularly mainland China. That makes Hong Kong not only a key consumer, but also one of the world’s biggest trade hubs of shark fin. Our market’s influence on global supplies is why sharkconservation work in Hong Kong has the potential to make a significant difference. Scientific assessments support the claim that the trade of shark products is threatening global shark populations. This is not just about shark-fin soup: have you checked your beauty products for shark-based squalene, or your fish balls for shark meat? Since BLOOM HK’S formation in 2009, we have launched several campaigns to reduce demand for shark-fin products in Hong Kong, and studies to understand what and how much we are trading. The research is crucial, as it’s even more difficult to protect something that we don’t understand. Through the collective hard work and determination of local and international conservation initiatives, we have seen some good progress in the past 10 years. Since 2011, many large hotel brands have publicly vouchsafed to remove shark-fin dishes from their set banquet menus, or at least provide an alternative menu that replaces shark fin with other foods. Set banquets are the main occasion for shark-fin consumption. BLOOM HK’S sociological surveys in 2009 and 2014 found a decrease in self-proclaimed shark-fin consumption among Hong Kong citizens, many citing “environmental reasons” as the cause for their change in behaviour. In 2013, the Hong Kong government became the first in the region to publicly announce the removal of shark-fin dishes from official events for sustainability reasons. Our success stories are encouraging, but they by no means indicate that our job is done. Quite the contrary, it is
a sign that we should continue to pushing for greater change. Sharks – and many other marine fishes – are far from saved, and populations continue to dwindle. Recent assessments of shark species in the Arabian sea and adjacent waters found that more than 50% of over 100 species are threatened with extinction. While imports of shark fin into Hong Kong and mainland China have fallen since 2012, trade into other destinations such as Singapore has increased. Corporate or government initiatives that favour sustainability are still found wanting in our neighbours, Macao and mainland China. Even in Hong Kong, only one piece of legislation protects 12 Cites-listed shark species in the international trade. There are no laws to protect sharks coming through local waters. There is much left to be done … But progress is progress, and the ground made by Hong Kong is grounds for hope. It may have taken us some time, but engaged citizens are beginning to realise that while our consumption choices are part of the problem, we have the choice to become part of the solution, too. Around Asia, local and regional initiatives have surfaced to expand the ways we can help sharks. This can happen not only by providing alternative consumption choices or changing behaviour, but also by improving the science behind conservation. There are beacons of hope: the nation of Palau, a shark sanctuary, is seeing local shark numbers rise. If you are a diver and you want to ensure that you continue seeing sharks underwater, the breakout box below provides some initiatives to consider.