Activists blame soup for cutting shark populations

DEMONIZED: Wildlife groups warn that too many sharks are being slaughtered, but humans' fears of the species makes arguing for increased protection more difficult


Mon, Sep 27, 2004 - Page 6

The fin of a killer shark circles menacingly around a terrified young couple, abandoned by their diving party, as they scream for help in a vast stretch of unfriendly ocean. Death closes in on them, minute by excruciating minute.

Like Jaws nearly three decades ago, the movie Open Water -- based on the true story of Americans Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who disappeared after being stranded off the coast of Australia six years ago -- has stirred up people's innate terror of sharks.

Ironically, Open Water is filling cinemas at a time when the wildlife watchdog Traffic is trying to draw people's attention to its argument that sharks don't need to be demonized: What they actually need is protection.

Last year, there were 55 recorded shark attacks on humans worldwide, four of them fatal. The reverse death toll is stupefying, with Greenpeace estimating that 100 million sharks a year are killed by humans, 1 million as by-catch from tuna fishing alone.

The booming trade in shark fin is one of the key factors in diminishing shark populations. More than 20,000 tonnes of fin a year is being traded and half of it is passing through Hong Kong on its way to be processed in China and served up as a prestige dish in restaurants across Asia.

The trade is growing at the rate of around 5 percent a year with the majority of shark fin shipped or flown in from Spain, Taiwan, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates, processed and then consumed in China or re-exported.

A single fin can sell for up to US$57,000. Shark fin is one of the most expensive seafood products in the world, retailing at up to around US$750 per kilogram.

There have been campaigns to curb people's appetite for shark fin in Singapore, Hong Kong and elsewhere, but diners appear to be paying scant attention. Imports to Hong Kong alone have soared by 3,000 tonnes a year since 1998.

Now Traffic is calling for closer scrutiny of shark fin shipments after three species -- the Great White, the Basking Shark and the Whale Shark -- were listed as protected species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Samuel Lee, spokesman for Traffic East Asia, described the task facing customs officials in Hong and China as "like David and Goliath" because of the huge quantities of shark fin passing through their container terminals.

He applauded the CITES listing but warned that unless effective enforcement action is taken, it will do little more than pay lip service to the need to protect endangered species while the wholesale slaughter of sharks continues.

"Hong Kong is the biggest port in the world in terms on the number of containers coming in and going out. Customs can only randomly select the container to do the spot check," he said. "The problem is that people may wrongly declare or under-declare things."

Lee said he was concerned competing priorities and the shark's unsympathetic image might mean that customs men concentrate more on looking for smuggled cigarettes or DVDs rather than illicit cargos of shark fin.

"There are the cigarette companies, the film industry, lots of people pushing customs to do their job in different areas," Lee said.

"But there is no one representing wildlife apart from us. It is difficult to get wildlife issues on the agenda -- and as a result, resources are minimal."

Animal welfare groups and Greenpeace believe more effort needs to be taken to educate people to stop eating so much shark fin, a view not shared by Lee who argues consumption is acceptable so long as it is sustainable.

Martin Baker of China said people should eat less shark fin generally and make sure they only ate it from responsible source to stop the problem of "finning" where sharks have their fins cut off and are left to die a slow death.

"Shark finning, besides being very wasteful, is unfortunately very common. The fins are worth a lot of money, but the rest of the shark does not sell for much," Baker said.

The most effective appeal, however, may turn out to be the common-sense argument that if potentially endangered species continue to be culled at the current rate, the supply of shark fin to restaurant tables will eventually die out too.

In its report, Traffic warns: "Hong Kong and China must recognize that a sustainable shark fin trade requires sustainable shark fisheries and therefore provide a prominent contribution to this end."

Whether they pay attention to this economic logic before population levels reach critical levels may well depend on how many people can be persuaded that the shark is more the hunted than the hunter.