Over half of the world’s trade of shark passes through Hong Kong making it the world’s trade centre for shark finning. Whilst many Western communities have started to turn their backs on the controversial practice of finning, in Chinese and Asian communities shark fin soup has long been seen as a delicacy, often served at wedding ceremonies and ordered in restaurants as a symbol of status.
Sadly, most shark fins are obtained by a process in which fishermen slice the fins off live sharks and dump their bodies back into the ocean. The effects on the underwater ecosystems are potentially devastating. Remove the top ocean predator and the delicate balance of marine life is threatened also.
Sharks are generally slow to reach reproductive maturity and birth small litters. Coupled with overfishing and some populations are in rapid decline.
Marie Incles for Sassy Hong Kong caught up with Rachel Vickerstaff from the Hong Kong Shark Foundation to find out more about shark finning in Hong Kong and they work they are doing.
Why was the foundation set up in Hong Kong?
When such a large percentage of the world’s trade comes from one place and that one place decides to do something about it we have a great chance of making a huge difference.
How did you come to be involved with the foundation?
I am a scuba diver and so always had a connection to the sea. I was invited to a wedding when I first moved to Hong Kong six years ago and was offered shark fin. The family was proud to be serving shark at a wedding and, at that time I didn’t have the answers to explain why I felt it was a bad idea. So I started researching the issue, found some others who felt the same way as I did and, together, we set up the Hong Kong Shark Foundation.
How have attitudes to eating shark fin soup changed during that time?
In the last 12 -18 months conservation groups have made some great progress. Shark finning has been totally banned in Oregon and Washington and, in California a bill has just been passed after huge controversy – this is a huge achievement as California is the U.S. trade hub for shark fin. Even Taiwan has introduced some restrictive legislation whereby sharks can no longer be landed without their fins.
How about in China? Could attitudes there change?
Certainly, opponents to the anti shark fin movement have said that it is simply an attack on Chinese culture from the West – but the response of environmentalists have been that it’s an issue of sustainability, not culture.
But how can you change a long tradition that sees shark fin soup as a delicacy and symbol of wealth?
Fellow marine conservation charity, BLOOM Hong Kong, recently did a survey in Hong Kong and found the majority of Hong Kong citizens thought it acceptable not to serve shark fin soup. People are not actually asking for it but it is being given as a standard feature on menus at weddings. Younger consumers are ambivalent about it but the older generations are driving it at the planning of weddings and events. HKSF is currently working on a shark-free wedding programme to help combat this market.
Why is the cause of saving sharks becoming more urgent now?
It goes back to the 1970s and the rise of more sophisticated fishing techniques and of increasing affluence in Hong Kong and China. This is when shark fin became more affordable to mass audiences. What’s really sad about this is that sharks were on earth 200,000 years before the dinosaurs. They have survived several earlier mass extinctions and yet in just a few decades they’re struggling to survive a bowl of soup.
We can’t talk about sharks without looking at their image as being dangerous predators to humans. How have films like Jaws and the general media perception of shark affected your work?
Peter Benchley, who wrote Jaws, later said he regretted the impact his novel had had on the image of sharks. In fact, believe his wife remains active in shark conservation in the U.S.
What about stories of people being attacked in the sea?
There are thousands of people in the sea every single day who encounter no trouble with sharks. But the rare occasions where it does happen grab people’s attention and stick in their memories. Instead, consider that humans kill an estimated 73 million sharks every year but only 5 or 6 people each year die as a result of sharks attack. In the 10 minutes that we’ve been talking, however, over 1000 sharks will have been killed.
How does the Hong Kong Shark Foundation keep spreading the word on shark finning?
We focus a lot on consumer awareness. For example we’ve had a growing presence at the Dragon Boating festivals each year and we’ve also run viral marketing campaigns such freeze mobs and Facebook campaigns. One fun campaign was when we ran a video on YouTube called ‘Woman missed her shark fin soup in Hong Kong’. It was a spoof of an earlier clip about a woman who went crazy after she missed her flight in Hong Kong airport. Our video really worked in terms of sparking discussion and, we got over 1,000,000 hits. In addition to the consumer programmes, we also do some talks in schools and have a corporate lobbying programme that we run jointly with WWF-Hong Kong.
When is your next campaign that we can get involved with?
We are running a plank-mob on September 25. Simply turn up to Mong Kok Road Playground at 2pm with a fin on your back and then we’ll tell you the actual location for the plank mob.