Shark populations around the world are in rapid decline due to the enormous demand for shark fins from Asia, with Hong Kong at the centre of this trade, environmental activists have warned.
Bolstered by the China-led economic boom, the global trade in shark fin products has soared in recent years, said the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). There has been an annual growth of about 5 percent per year.
It estimated that over 73 million sharks are killed every year, primarily for their fins.
Footage taken by Sea Shepherd marine activist Gary Stokes shows thousands of shark fins drying on a Hong Kong pavement on March 1. Watch the video attached to this article.
"Obviously you can see behind us there's shark fins in all the shops and they're normally quite secretive - you can't really go in and film them - you'll be thrown out straight away," said Stokes. "So to see it so blatantly and in such a massive scale, as we saw the other day just down a public footpath, was pretty shocking. I mean, it was literally 50 metres of shark fins."
Environmental activists have long campaigned for governments to ban or severely restrict the sale of shark fin. It is commonly used in soup that is regarded as a delicacy and health tonic across much of Asia, especially China.
Being the major entry port for China, Hong Kong has long been the world's largest shark fin trading centre. Between 50 and 80 percent of the global trade is handled there - most of it destined for China.
A kilogram of premium dried fin can fetch up to HK$10,000 (NZ$1,570) on the street in Hong Kong, or as little as HK$200 (NZ$30) for fins of lesser quality.
WWF said the consumption of shark fins is a driving factor behind the threat to the shark population. More than 180 species were considered threatened in 2010 compared with only 15 in 1996.
Some countries have banned shark finning, such as the US, Canada, Brazil, Namibia, South Africa and the European Union.
Under new laws, fishermen have to land all sharks with their fins attached. However, environmentalists say finning takes place off every coast of every continent, in particular in poorer countries that do not have the resources to monitor and prosecute shark hunters.
The fins are sliced off sharks, often while they are alive, and their carcasses dumped in the sea.
Although international regulations and protections are important, WWF International President Yolanda Kakabdse believes a voluntary ban is the best current stop-gap measure.
"The policy at the government level will only create an illegal market unless there is a society that says 'no more!' And that is what we need to create - a society that is aware, educated and responsible to the rest of the planet as well as the regulation that is needed to control several markets," said Kakabdse.
Shark fin soup is still regarded as an important status symbol for hosts wanting to demonstrate their wealth in Chinese banquets. It is also believed to have various health benefits in traditional medicine.
But it seems the tide may be turning.
One of Asia's most prestigious hotel chains, the Peninsula Group, stopped offering shark fin soup on its menus from the beginning of this year. The WWF said that over one hundred restaurants and companies in Hong Kong have also put in place the self-imposed ban which activists have hailed as an important first step.
3 News / Reuters