Er­ror 404: shark not found

Action Asia - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Stan Shea

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.

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