Shark fans find their teeth

Just a few of the estimated 73 million sharks killed each year for their fins alone. Photo: Paul Hilton

Shark fin campaigners in Hong Kong are starting to find a more receptive audience among the city’s corporates and the general public

Steve White

Just a few of the estimated 73 million sharks killed each year for their fins alone. Photo: Paul Hilton

The plaza in front of Hong Kong’s Times Square mall is always bustling with shoppers, especially at the weekend. But at exactly 12:40 on Saturday, October 9, 2010, more than 150 people came to a sudden stop there, frozen in mid-action for three minutes, to the bemusement of those around them.

The freeze mob was the latest attention-grabbing idea of Hong Kong Shark Foundation (HKSF), one of a number of local and international groups fighting to get shark fin off the city’s menus. It’s long been a popular cause with Hong Kong’s expats but now there’s a sense that with locals too taking up the issue, meaningful progress may be within reach.

In recent years, shark fin, once a luxury item featured only in the most lavish Chinese banquets, has become far more affordable. The soaring demand has been met by a corresponding explosion in the supply, fed by fishermen of many nations – European, South American and African as well as Asian – scouring the globe for sharks.

Volunteer asks a passer-by to sign a anti-shark fin pledge. Photo: Paul Hilton

Today the sharks’ most implacable and dangerous foe – mankind – kills something like 100 million of their number every year, the vast majority being harvested for their fins alone. Not only is this staggeringly wasteful, it is also wholly unsustainable as sharks mature slowly, and typically have few babies that they carry for many months. They cannot replace at anything close to the rate at which they are being caught.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature’s Hong Kong chapter (WWF-HK) have been working on the shark fin issue for many years. According to Silvy Pun, whose job title is Marketing Officer Shark, we are running out of time to save them: “The number of threatened shark and related species has risen from 15 to 126 in 13 years,” she says.

An attempt to ban the trade in some of these species at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) earlier this year was defeated though and fishermen remain able to catch sharks freely and without quota throughout almost all of the world’s oceans. This trade was highlighted in the acclaimed 2006 documentary film Sharkwater, a film which helped inspire the group of people who came together to form HKSF. Rob Stewart, the Canadian filmmaker behind Sharkwater, has described Hong Kong as the “Grand Central Station” of the fin trade and the group quickly grasped that here was an opportunity to make a stand locally that would have repercussions globally.

HKSF’s early steps included helping to produce another film, Fin, that won an award at the 2009 Hong Kong Short Film Festival, as well as two videos that have earned more than a million hits between them on YouTube.

As things have started to happen locally, there have been encouraging signs from outside Hong Kong too. “There’s also been international organisations (Wild Aid, Bloom etc) taking a more active interest in China/HK as the centre of the trade,” says HKSF’s Claire Garner.

Facebook has been vital in widening the circle of like-minded people. Through it, HKSF found Rachel Pang, a one-woman advocacy group with close to 20,000 followers on Facebook – crucially, most of them Chinese. They also used it to connect with computer engineer Clement Lee, who has a similar number of followers across his various pages. He has since played an important role in HKSF activities in Hong Kong despite living in the U.S.

Sorting fins in a Sheung Wan warehouse. Photo: Paul Hilton

More recently, a video of a finned whaleshark found in the Philippines earlier this year by divers from Hong Kong led to many expressing their outrage on social media sites. Anti-finning pages have proliferated – including a growing number in Chinese.

“Enough critical mass has built on the issue for people to realise it’s not going away,” says Rachel Vickerstaff of HKSF. “Within HK, a number of previously disparate groups have started working together, creating a constant stream of activities to retain the momentum.”
Crucially, interest from the local Chinese press is raising too. Li’s ‘Cut Gift Money for Shark Fin Banquets’ Facebook page made the headlines on April 6 in Apple Daily. Then in October, Ming Pao ran a story on the failure of Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang to heed a postcard campaign orchestrated by HKSF requesting that he make all government departments shark-free in his annual policy address.

All this attention on the issue seems to be having an effect. In a recent Yahoo! Hong Kong online poll, 65% of respondents said they would remove shark fin soup from their wedding banquet menu. Such decisions are not always down to the happy couple alone but WWF-HK’s Pun reckons that, “more and more people are brave enough to announce to their relatives and friends they don’t want shark fin soup.”

WWF launched the Alternative Shark-free Menu programme to help those people, working with caterers to provide banquet menus with no shark fin soup. So far, 38 restaurants have joined the cause, though in most cases they are not entirely shark fin-free: they merely offer alternatives for more environmentally sensitive diners.

WWF also has a page on their site where companies can pledge to never sell or buy shark fin. To date, 76 companies have signed up including many household names in Hong Kong.

Among those names is that of Citi Hong Kong, the local subsidiary of Citibank. One of the local shark fin lobby’s biggest victories came when the company was persuaded to stop a shark fin promotion associated with their credit cards. After pressure was brought to bear on them via the media, the bank issued a regional ban on the consumption and promotion of the product.

The success was hugely empowering for the movement and its supporters: “I have a friend on Facebook (a local middle-aged woman) who told me that this was the first time in her life to write a complaint letter for the environment and the positive result came in right away,” says Pang.

Now HKSF, together with Bloom, a French environmental non-profit with an office in Hong Kong, plan to leverage this success by putting pressure on other banks and big financial institutions to follow Citibank’s lead. After that, they plan to roll the approach out to other sectors of business.

Also on HKSF’s play list are a pair of ‘Ministry of Sharks’ nights showcasing local bands in November, as well as a possible gala dinner in 2011.

Jerry McLean meanwhile, who organised October’s freeze mob, is considering repeating the feat, especially if he can attract even more local participants. He estimates that 55% of those that took part at Times Square were Chinese, saying that the people of Hong Kong are “marched out and bored – the younger people want something more interactive.” He also says people are “inherently lazy” which is why pushing a campaign through Facebook works so well: “offer them something they can do in three clicks and they’ll do it,” he says.
HKSF and allied groups in the city are learning just what buttons to push to get locals involved in the fight against shark fin. The signs are favourable – the issue is creeping up the agenda, but HKSF are under no illusions as to how big a task still lies ahead.

“The shark fin industry is an established and highly lucrative one,” says Vickerstaff, “many people have failed to crack it before and it’s only through a consistent, concerted effort that positive results will be gained. That means continuing to work with as many groups as possible to spread the word and never giving up.”

How you can help save sharks

1) Visit these websites:

Bloom, www.bloomassociation.org Greensense, www.greensense.org.hk (Chinese) HKSF, www.hksharkfoundation.org Oceanic Love, www.oceaniclove.com Shark Rescue, www.sharkrescue.com WWF-HK, www.wwf.org.hk/shark

2) Find these groups on Facebook:

Cut Gift Money for Shark Fin Banquets No Shark Fin Soup in Our Company Banquets, Please

3) Help fund HKSF activities by buying a T-shirt; or the book, Man & Shark, from www.manandshark.com