Whale sharks in trou­ble

The big­gest fish in the ocean are be­ing hauled in for their fins, meat, skins and liver oil.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By TAN CHENG LI star2­green@thes­tar.com.my

SIGHT­INGS of whale sharks in Malaysian waters have be­come less com­mon in re­cent years and now, there ap­pears to be an ex­pla­na­tion for it. The sharks could have been net­ted and slaugh­tered be­fore they reached our coastal waters.

One fac­tory in the prov­ince of Zhejiang in south­ern China has been found to kill some 600 whale sharks, in ad­di­tion to other shark species, an­nu­ally, to pro­duce shark fins, leather, meat and liver oil. The fac­tory is be­lieved to be the world’s largest slaugh­ter­house of an in­ter­na­tion­ally pro­tected en­dan­gered species, and just one of many such shark pro­cess­ing plants in coastal China.

Ac­tivists from Hong Kong-based con­ser­va­tion group WildLifeRisk, pos­ing as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of an in­ter­na­tional seafood com­pany, made the dis­cov­ery dur­ing three vis­its to the fac­tory be­tween Jan­uary 2010 and De­cem­ber 2013.

The group’s re­cently-re­leased re­port con­tains grue­some photographs of chopped up whale sharks laid out on the floor and huge fins be­ing sun-dried in the fa­cil­ity of the China Wen­zhou Yue­qing Ma­rine Or­gan­isms Health Pro­tec­tion Foods Co, lo­cated in Puqi town­ship near Wen­zhou.

Hid­den cam­eras also cap­tured the gen­eral man­ager, Li Guang, ad­mit­ting that his fac­tory also pro­cesses bask­ing sharks and great white sharks. All three species are on Ap­pen­dix II of the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) – mean­ing that they can only be traded with per­mits, and have to be har­vested legally and in a sus­tain­able man­ner. All three are also pro­tected in China; so it is il­le­gal to hunt them with­out a spe­cial per­mit from the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment.

Beauty and health prod­ucts

The ac­tivists found that dried whale shark fins pro­duced by the fac­tory are sent to Guangzhou in Guang­dong prov­ince. Shark skins are sold as leather into the bag trade, while whale shark lips, stom­ach and flesh are sold to restau­rants. The real money-maker is shark liver oil for use in skin­care prod­ucts and lip­stick, as well as Omega-3 health sup­ple­ments.

In a year, the fac­tory pro­duces 200 tonnes of shark liver oil, ex­tracted from all three shark species. The liver oil is sent to a pro­cess­ing plant in Hainan Is­land, where it is blended with other types of shark liver oil in prepa­ra­tion for ex­port to the United States and Canada.

Such un­la­belled ex­ports con­tra­vene CITES rules as well as Chi­nese reg­u­la­tions. The fac­tory gen­eral man­ager also ad­mit­ted to smug­gling whale shark meat and skin out of the coun­try, and re­ceiv­ing sub­stan­tial num­bers of whale sharks from Tai­wan, where har­vest­ing

of the species is il­le­gal.

In a joint state­ment, Alex Hof­ford and Paul Hil­ton of WildLifeRisk said: “We went to Puqi three times in the last three years and on each oc­ca­sion, the scale of the slaugh­ter was truly stag­ger­ing. How th­ese harm­less crea­tures, th­ese gen­tle gi­ants of the deep, can be slaugh­tered on such an in­dus­trial scale is be­yond be­lief. It’s even more in­cred­i­ble that this car­nage is all for the sake of non-es­sen­tial life­style props such as lip­sticks, face creams, health sup­ple­ments and shark fin soup.

“We are call­ing on China’s reg­u­la­tory au­thor­i­ties to en­force the in­ter­na­tional agree­ments on this il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity now, be­fore th­ese an­i­mals are brought closer to ex­tinc­tion.”

Hof­ford, co-di­rec­tor of WildLifeRisk, told the South China Morn­ing Post that he had seen about five to six shark-pro­cess­ing plants in Puqi and had also heard re­ports of other shark pro­cess­ing plants in Xi­a­men in Fujian prov­ince.

“If you go (to Puqi) in sum­mer, there are fields and fields of fins be­ing laid out to dry,” he said.

On one visit to Guangzhou in 2012, the ac­tivists counted 260 large fins for sale in dried seafood mar­kets: 136 from whale sharks, 69 from bask­ing sharks and 55 from the great white shark.

Big hauls

In the east­ern seaboard of China, fish­er­men from the prov­inces of Shan­dong in the north to Guang­dong in the south are haul­ing in the big­gest fish in the sea, some­times as by­catch. There is a lot of money to be made; one whale shark can pur­port­edly sell for up to 200,000 yuan (RM109,500). The sharks are be­ing caught in the South China Sea as they pass the re­gion on mi­gra­tory jour­neys. Th­ese are the same sharks which ply the fa­mous whale shark-spot­ting site of Nin­ga­loo Reef off Aus­tralia’s north-west coast as well as the waters of the Philip­pines, In­done­sia and even Mex­ico. Ev­i­dence gath­ered points to an ex­ten­sive trade net­work fan­ning out from China across the globe.

Fol­low­ing the re­lease of the WildLifeRisk re­port, an of­fi­cial at the Bureau of Fish­eries which is un­der the Agri­cul­ture Min­istry, told the South China Morn­ing Post that hunt­ing and sale of the three shark species were il­le­gal. The of­fi­cial said there were no shark-fish­ing boats on the main­land and any by­catch of the species had to be re­ported. But he ad­mit­ted that the sale of whale sharks could be car­ried out at night, un­der cover of dark­ness.

When con­tacted by the Hong Kong-based daily, the fac­tory gen­eral man­ager de­nied hav­ing whale sharks in his plant and not know­ing if he had bask­ing sharks or great whites. He de­clined to give fur­ther de­tails. A fac­tory worker said the fac­tory pro­cesses mainly rib­bon­fish, but sharks some­times swam into nets and fish­er­men would sell them.

WildLifeRisk urges for the cul­prits to be held ac­count­able for vi­o­lat­ing in­ter­na­tional wildlife pro­tec­tion laws, cit­ing that trade in prod­ucts de­rived from en­dan­gered shark species is both en­vi­ron­men­tally un­sus­tain­able and morally un­eth­i­cal. It says con­sumers must be ed­u­cated not to buy such prod­ucts.

A com­pelling eco­nomic ar­gu­ment also ex­ists for bet­ter pro­tec­tion of whale sharks as they are worth more alive, than dead. In re­gions where whale sharks are known to ag­gre­gate, eco­tourism has proven to be a lu­cra­tive al­ter­na­tive to fish­ing, ac­cord­ing to en­vi­ron­men­tal group, the Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts.

It has been es­ti­mated that whale shark tourism, mainly through re­cre­ational div­ing, is worth about US$47.5 mil (RM147.25 mil) world­wide.

“Ed­u­cat­ing lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties about the value of a live whale shark and pro­mot­ing the tran­si­tion from hunt­ing to eco-tourism is a prac­ti­cal means of achiev­ing both a sus­tain­able econ­omy and a healthy ocean,” says WildLifeRisk.

Over-fished: Whale sharks used to be in­ci­den­tal catches in nets, but now, with their high price tags, fish­er­men are tar­get­ing them. — Photo by WildLifeRisk

Shark fac­tory: Whale sharks be­ing cut up in a fac­tory in Puqi in China’s Zhejiang prov­ince. In­ves­ti­ga­tions by the con­ser­va­tion group WildLiferisk showed that the fac­tory pro­cesses about 600 whale sharks an­nu­ally. — WildLife risk

(right) Whale shark fins be­ing dried in a fac­tory in Puqi.

(be­low) Work­ers sort­ing out dried shark fins at a fac­tory in Puqi.

Sharks to be slaugh­tered at a fac­tory in Puqi where sev­eral such fac­to­ries are said to be in op­er­a­tion. — aFP

Shark liver oil is pop­u­lar as a health sup­ple­ment.

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