The Hong Kong government should step up law enforcement actions against shark fin smuggling in the city, a lawmaker and conservation groups have said, after a global wildlife summit voted to grant elevated protection to the most heavily traded species in the local shark fin industry.

Blue sharks Spanish Port of Vigo
Blue sharks at the Port of Vigo in Spain. File photo: Paul Hilton/WildAid.

Hong Kong and international conservation groups on Friday welcomed a “historic vote” at the 19th meeting of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Panama the day before, when world governments agreed to add 54 requiem shark species and six hammerhead species to Appendix II of the international agreement, pending a final adoption in a plenary session next week.

The appendix covers more than 37,000 species that require their trade to be regulated to prevent falling populations or even extinction. The decision came after CITES said the shark species concerned faced “rapid and severe population declines” driven partly by global trade.

“This landmark vote marks the culmination of a decade of shark conservation progress within CITES. Now, finally, the deeply unsustainable shark fin trade will be fully regulated,” said Luke Warwick of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Among the newly added species were blue sharks, the most commonly traded species in Hong Kong. If it passes, the new regulation will mean the trade of blue sharks may continue at sustainable levels, as long as the population remains healthy.

Illegal trade

The move to offer CITES protection status to blue sharks and other species commonly found in the local shark fin market was “progressive” and “much needed,” said Sophie le Clue, CEO of ADM Capital Foundation which promotes equity and environmental protection in Asia.

It would impose additional “checks and balance” on the local shark fin industry by requiring traders to obtain a license to import or re-export fins taken from the scheduled species, she said. But the conservationist warned it may lead to an increase in illegal shark fin trade if traders did not follow the proposed regulations.

“We always seem to get an increase in illegal shark fins following the listings, because obviously some people don’t get the documentation,” she told HKFP.

Lawmaker Elizabeth Quat, chairperson of the Panel on Environmental Affairs, agreed a rise in smuggling was possible as traders may want to distribute their products before the regulation was officially enacted.

The Hong Kong government should update the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance as soon as possible, the DAB legislator said, after it took the authorities more than a year to incorporate previous CITES amendments into local laws.

“We don’t want to give tge wrong message to the industry that Hong Kong doesn’t have a law [regulating the trade of shark species] yet, and that they could smuggle shark fins to Hong Kong,” she said.

Elizabeth Quat
Elizabeth Quat. File photo: Legislative Council, via Flickr.

The latest CITES rules would be implemented in the city after a series of legislative amendment procedures. The Hong Kong government would first need to add the new regulated shark species to the relevant ordinance and publish the changes on the Gazette. The amendments would then be tabled at the Legislative Council for review, before they are officially put in place.

Both Quat and le Clue called on the authorities to provide visual identification training to frontline inspectors to help them distinguish shark fin products from dozens of scheduled species. Using technology such as DNA testing and artificial intelligence would be crucial in gatekeeping as well, the legislator said.

“Some species won’t be easy to identify visually, which will make it difficult. You can see that enforcement is going to be a challenge,” le Clue said.

In 2021, Hong Kong Customs detected 11 cases of suspected shark fin smuggling, totalling 43.1 tonnes with a value of HK$214.5 million. The city also recorded its largest shark fin smuggling cases in April and May 2020, when authorities intercepted around 26 tonnes of shark fins from Ecuador deemed to have been taken from endangered species.

Another environmental group, WWF-Hong Kong, agreed that there was a need for the authorities to enhance enforcement action against illicit shark fin trade in the city. Loby Hau, the NGO’s assistant manager in ocean sustainability, told HKFP that the government may need to consider creating a directory to help the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) track the stockpile of shark fin products in the city.

Customs dried shark fins
Hong Kong Customs makes record seizure of smuggled scheduled dried shark fins in May 2020. Photo: GovHK.

In response to HKFP’s enquiries, the AFCD said it would pay close attention to the discussion and progress of the CITES conference and take steps to amend relevant legislation when the proposed protection is officially endorsed.

“Should any proposed amendments be adopted, the Government will initiate legislative amendments to the Ordinance in order to give effect to the changes in regulation under CITES,” the department said in an emailed reply.

The Customs and Excise Department, on the other hand, told HKFP on Friday that the AFCD was the principal law enforcement agency concerning the protection of endangered wildlife.

Customs would rely on its “effective risk-assessment strategy” to vigorously conduct checks on passengers, cargo, postal packets and conveyances at different control points and sea boundaries to combat the smuggling of contrabands, it said, adding it would refer any suspected illegal import, export or re-export to the AFCD. ,

“Hong Kong Customs is committed to combating smuggling activities and has been working closely with the AFCD and overseas counterparts in detecting illegal importation and exportation of endangered species regulated by the Ordinance,” a department spokesman said.

‘Not much feeling’

Alex Hofford of Shark Guardian told HKFP on Friday that the new protection set to be granted to blue sharks and other similar species would place a “massive depth charge squarely beneath the entire Hong Kong shark fin trade.”

Dried Seafood Street Sheung Wan
Hong Kong’s Dried Seafood Street in Sheung Wan. File photo: GovHK.

“This is a huge deal, and it won’t be long before Hong Kong’s so-called Dried Seafood Street in Sheung Wan will have to pull down its shutters for the last time,” he said, adding it would be “extremely difficult” for Chinese restaurants that serve shark fin to source their ingredients from any “non-illegal sources.”

Hong Kong shark fin traders and shops “did not have much feeling” towards to the latest proposed protection, said George Lam, who has been selling dried seafood goods for more than 60 years.

The businessman who used to run a shop on Connaught Road West said the addition of blue sharks and other similar species would likely reduce imports of shark fins to the local market, but Chinese restaurants have been gradually phasing out shark fin over the past decade, replacing it with fish maw and other dried seafood.

Dried shark fins
Dried shark fins. File photo: GovHK.

“The sales of shark fin in Hong Kong has reached a point where it can no longer support a business. Some traders would invest in other dried seafood instead,” he said, citing “stringent” environmental laws that made it difficult for local traders to remain in the shark fin business.

Total ban

Asked if Hong Kong should put a total ban on shark fin, legislator Quat said it would be highly controversial and “very difficult” to execute, given the size of the trade. The city should concentrate on education instead, she said, to ensure members of the public were aware of the expected changes to CITES regulations.

“Even if I were to propose [a total ban], it would not pass,” she said.

Under the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance, those convicted of importing or exporting an endangered species without a licence are punishable by a fine of up to HK$10 million and imprisonment for 10 years.

In August last year, Hong Kong’s legislature amended the Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance to cover the illegal wildlife trade. The amendment, which granted the authorities greater investigative powers, would help law enforcement to crack down on organisations and leaders behind the international the illicit trade, rather than just catch individual “scapegoats,” Quat, who proposed the amendment, said at the time.

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Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.