A shady trade in Hong Kong: shark fins drying on a rooftop

 
In December 2010, a YouTube video showing a Hong Kong pavement littered with drying shark fins caused a public outcry. The island’s traders have since moved their activities high up onto Hong Kong’s rooftops to avoid more bad publicity. But they couldn’t keep away from the cameras forever. A Hong Kong resident recently blew the whistle on the legal, but highly criticised, practice.
 
Aerial photo of drying shark fins on rooftop (Gary Stokes, Sea Shepherd)
 
Shark-fin soup is a pricey delicacy in China, and Hong Kong is a hot spot for the shark fin trade: around 50% of fins destined for China pass through the country’s southern island. In China, trading shark fins is legal, unlike in the European Union and the United States. Shark fishing takes places across the world’s oceans, but it’s a secretive business which is notoriously hard to track.
 
Once caught, the shark’s fin is cut off and the carcass thrown back into the water. The fins are then frozen until they’re offloaded onto land, where they’re dried out, stripped down and cooked, ready for the dinner plate.
 
But sharks mature slowly and give birth to few offspring, so are struggling to reproduce fast enough to keep up with the rate of fishing. The global shark population is in fast decline, and campaigns in Hong Kong against eating their fins have gained momentum in recent years. Precise, up-to-date data on how many sharks are killed each year does not exist, but the most recent figure (2006) put the number at between 26-73 million.
 
Photo of drying shark fins on rooftop taken by Alex Hofford (January 2)
Contributors

"Sharks are getting wiped out on a stupendous, insane scale"

Alex Hofford is a Franco-British marine conservationist and photojournalist. He co-founded the Hong Kong Shark Foundation and My Ocean, and has been living in Hong Kong for 18 years.
 
I got tipped off. A whistleblower took photos and videos, published them on Facebook, and another internet-user posted it on the Hong Kong Shark Foundation’s website. I managed to get in touch with the person who’d originally posted the images of Facebook, and as soon as I’d found out the address, I headed over straight away. That was New Year’s Day. I went back the next day with a group of colleagues to take a closer look. But I wanted to get the job done quickly in case we got in trouble - it was ‘get in, get out’. 
 
The rooftop is right next to the port. The company using it has the legal right to, but it has to remain open to the building’s inhabitants as a fire escape. That’s how I was able to get up there so easily.
 
 Footage filmed by Alex Hofford (January 2)
 
Drying the fins isn’t illegal in Hong Kong, but the company has built illegal structures on the rooftop to do it. You can’t just build whatever you like on rooftops, the drying structures weren’t in the original building plans [Editor’s note: building regulations are strict in Hong Kong, which faces chronic housing shortages]. On the rooftop, I saw a sign tacked to the door by the government’s Building Department demanding the company dismantle the illegal structures within six weeks. The sign was dated August 28th 2012.
 
So the government is concerned about the illegal structures, but it’s ignoring the shark fin carnage going on up there. A colleague of mine called the Food and Environmental Health Department, and they told him they couldn’t do anything about the shark fins because it’s a private building.
 
    Photographs of various building structures taken by Alex Hofford (January 2)
     
    Sharks are getting wiped out on a stupendous, insane scale. It’s going on daily. These photos show what’s happening in Hong Kong, but the same thing is happening all over mainland China and Taiwan. Finding where it’s happening in China is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
     
    But in Hong Kong, this sleazy stuff doesn’t look good. The tourism department is really trying to entice foreign visitors, and this is an embarrassment - it’s not good for Hong Kong’s image. It makes it look like a wildlife pariah state. In 18 years of living here, I’ve never seen shark fins drying on rooftops in Hong Kong. Maybe it’s happening more, and it’s just better hidden.
     
    "Shark fins are like a currency"
     
    The fishing boats catch the sharks using long lines with bait attached in intervals of every 20 metres or so. They’re targeting tuna, ostensibly, but they’re killing sharks because it’s more lucrative. Shark fins are like a currency.

    Photograph of a sack on the rooftop filled with shark fins, taken by Alex Hofford (January 2)
     
    I found a sack of fins labelled ‘origin: Brazil’ on the rooftop, but usually it’s impossible to know where the fins are from. The sharks could have been caught from all around the world. The fishing industry is one of the world’s most opaque industries, which makes it difficult to trace what’s going on.
     
    Those of us against shark finning know that demanding an outright ban on sale and possession in China is a big ask, it’s a tall order. So we’ve got a petition asking the Hong Kong authorities to stop serving them at banquets and events, at least it’s a start. It’s the thin edge of the wedge.
     

    Post written with France 24 journalist Claire Williams (@clairewf24)

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