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Reprinted from the South China Morning News, January 16, opinion written by Sophie Le Clue, ADMCF’s director of environmental programs:

In one sense, 2011 was a good year for sharks. The movement in Asia against consuming shark fin gained momentum against a
backdrop of new legislation to ban the trade in California as well as several Canadian cities. In a domino effect, shark sanctuaries were declared worldwide, covering thousands of square kilometers.

In China, the business community also rallied against shark fin. To date, 142 business leaders including chairmen and chief
executives of leading companies such as Lenovo, Haier and China Merchants Bank pledged not to eat it, while hotels and clubs have committed to not serving the infamous soup.

On the government side, in 2011 45 members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference signed the “Motion on
Development of Regulations on Prohibiting Shark Fin Trade”. Some members of the National People’s Congress also signed the
motion, which will be considered by the government later this year.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels Group’s surprising and insightful move to ban the product across all outlets, including its famed Peninsula hotels, was perhaps a fitting end to the year.

Despite these moves, there is a long way to go. There are enormous challenges to implementing regulatory controls and many shark populations globally remain endangered, some threatened with extinction in the near future.

As a result, eyes are now firmly on Hong Kong, the centre of the global shark fin trade and itself a driving force in declining shark
populations.Yet it seems resolute in enabling such ecologically important endangered species to be traded with little regulatory control.

Approximately 10,000 tonnes of shark fin from millions of sharks are imported into Hong Kong every year with virtually no regulation as to species. According to some estimates, this equates to around half of the global trade.

To provide context: of the 507 shark species, only 256 have been assessed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) to determine their conservation status and of these, 56 per cent, or 143 species, have been identified as threatened with extinction, either now or in the near future. Many of these species are freely traded in Hong Kong.

Last year, questions by legislators on the topic of shark fin met with the standard response: that the government adheres strictly to Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) requirements.

Quite why this prevents the government from regulating trade in endangered species not under Cites remains to be seen.
The paradox, however, is startling. Cites was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at an IUCN meeting and came into force as an international agreement in 1975.

By placing trade restrictions on species at risk, it aims to ensure that the international trade in wild animals and plants does not
threaten their survival. Yet it only includes three species of shark, despite valiant efforts to introduce several others in 2010,
when countries with vested interests in the trade, such as Japan, reportedly bargained with fellow signatories to ensure that highly lucrative shark species – albeit critically endangered – were not included in the convention’s regulatory appendices.

Science and sustainability, the cornerstone of conservation, clearly gave way to commercial interests. For sharks at least, Cites is failing. So when an administration such as Hong Kong hides behind its Cites’ commitment in response to questions about the shark trade, despite the convention’s obvious failings, we know we are in troubled waters.

We can only hope that the next chief executive will have more foresight. Hong Kong remains a gateway to the shark fin trade in
Asia; with a little vision it could make eating shark fin history and have a major impact on an issue of global significance.


Sunday's Freezemob in TST, Hong Kong

This blog was written by the director of ADMCF’s environment program, Sophie Le Clue

At the end of April, this blog highlighted research by HK Bloom Association into cultural attitudes to shark fin, which showed that Hong Kong is clearly ready for change when it comes to taking shark fin off food menus, despite the cultural sensitivity.  During May the research went on to receive global media coverage being reported from the New York Times to Louisiana’s Bayou Buzz in the US, to the Telegram in Australia and the Bangkok Post in Thailand (to name a few)– not to mention widespread coverage across blogs and websites.

In an even earlier blog we illustrated that momentum against sharkfin in HK was building , and what’s clear now is that these efforts are intensifying across the world.

Just last week:

  • Washington became the first State in the United States to prohibit the sale, purchase, trade, and preparation of shark fins.  Similar legislation which is generating much controversy also looks imminent in California and Oregon.
  • In Malaysia, the State Cabinet agreed with the Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun on the immediate need to include sharks in Sabah waters in the protected species list –it’s hoped this will be in force by year end.
  • Sabah’s top hotels are already preparing for this leading conservation move and last week were reported to already be taking shark fin off menus – Hong Kong please take note… particularly in light of the Ritz Carlton’s recent  announcement that its brand new Hong Kong hotel indeed intends to serve dish – suffice to say Hong Kong’s very active and effective shark conservation organisations (see previous blog – Hong Kong Campaign Against Shark Fin Soup gathers Strength ) are building momentum against this move by the Ritz.
  • There were rumblings that Canada is also gearing up to enter the discussion.  Brantford, a seemingly sleepy city in Ontario, will be debating this week on enacting a bylaw to prohibit the sale and consumption of all shark fin products (finning is already banned in Canada, but not the trade).
  • Back to the US and Chinese basket ball superstar Yao Ming flew to Shanghai to receive WildAid’s International Ambassador award, in recognition of his public stand against shark fin in China.

 All of these actions follow an unprecedented move in China, when in March, deputy to the National People’s Congress, Ding Liguo, proposed to ban the trade in shark fin – citing the unsustainability of the practice as well as its brutal nature. There are also indications that the public display of eating shark fin by China’s elites as a sign of wealth is beginning to irk those higher up.

And of course Hong Kongers also need a mention.  Just yesterday at precisely 12.45am an eerie silence pervaded the “Avenue of Stars’ (a popular tourist destination on the harbor front) as 350 odd people ‘froze’ for five minutes in protest against the shark fin trade and consumption.  This second ‘Freezemob’ organized by the Hong Kong Shark Foundation (HKSF) witnessed a near doubling of numbers from the first such event last year.

 As tourists meandered in and out of 350 frozen statues curiously eyeing a variety of shark paraphernalia, behind them hundreds of fishing trawlers silently sailed into the harbour in protest against Hong Kong’s landmark trawling ban announced last week – a curious juxtaposition.

Perhaps Hong Kong will get it right and lead the way after all.

The following blog post was written by Sophie Le Clue, director of ADMCF’s environment program:

Two weeks ago I attended Seaweb’s annual seafood summit in Vancouver. Aptly named ‘Responsibility without Borders’, it was attended by more than 700 industry representatives, NGOs and academics, from 30 countries.

These constituents gathered to discuss the different aspects and perspectives of the world’s fisheries.   In a previous blog (Catch it if you Can) I focused on the worrying situation facing our oceans as a result of intense and industrialised overfishing. 

A fairly bleak picture was painted, with huge environmental impacts and fisheries’ collapse imminent if we carry on business as usual. Not to mention the more immediate demise of certain fish species such as sharks, blue fin tuna, orange roughy and chilean sea bass.

However, with both a heavy industry and NGO presence, the summit showcased the progress that is being made in fisheries management, including improved traceability, the reported recovery of some stocks and on a slightly alternative note, the sustainability of eating seafood when compared to livestock – more on that later.

Ray Hillborn pointed out that not all capture fisheries are unsustainable – and that fish stocks in aggregate are stable rather than declining, based on data from N America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Partnerships with NGOs and constructive engagement appeared to be a driving force behind the sustainable seafood ‘movement’ and the improvements that are emerging.

There was however a notable gap – which as you may have guessed, is the implication of seafood production, consumption and fisheries management in Asia and in particular, China.

A question raised at the summit hit the nail on the head, :– how can you keep growing sustainable seafood production/consumption without engaging the world’s largest seafood producer and market – the answer posed was simply – you can’t.

According to FAO, China is by far the largest fish-producing country, with production at 47.5 million tonnes in 2008.  This represents 17% of the world’s capture fisheries and 62% of world aquaculture production of fish, an impressive figure considering that aquaculture represents 46% of the total fish food supply globally.

Already the world’s largest seafood market, China is touted to become the world’s largest seafood importer by the end of the decade.

Annual per capita fish consumption globally is on the rise – 12.6kg/capita in the eighties has risen to 17.2kg/capita by 2009. China accounts for most of the global increase in per capita consumption and its consumption is 55% higher than the world average at 26.7kg/capita. Interestingly, Hong Kong with its relatively small population of nearly 7 million, appears to have a voracious appetite for seafood with per capita consumption estimated at over 64kg/year.

Unfortunately FAO statistics indicate that room for optimism is limited.  Of global fish stocks it estimates that : 32% are over exploited, 53% are fully exploited,  12% moderately exploited and  just 3% underexploited – not leaving much room to satiate the world’s expanding population and appetite for seafood.

It’s all the more fitting then and indeed a sign of the times, that for the summit’s tenth anniversary, Seaweb has elected for the first time to host the event in Asia – with China’s neighbour, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, as the selected venue. 

Food glorious food : land versus the sea

Returning to the livestock issue and the comparative impacts of land versus sea-based food production, Ray Hillborn hypothesised that the comparative environmental cost of fish is lower than land-based livestock.

Whilst this is not a reason to take an eye off the sustainability issues facing our oceans, – it warrants some thought, especially for the voracious meat eaters among us.

Mr Hillborn presented the findings of a review he undertook recently of existing research and it makes for interesting reading.  As he points out, the actual numbers he unearthed are not so important in terms of accuracy, but the scale is significant – there are clearly significant environmental costs associated with meat production (Box 1).

On energy efficiency, a paper by Peter Tyedmers (albeit ten years old) was presented, also showing quite clearly the inefficiency in food production on a sliding scale, with meat production being the worst (Box 2) – queue obvious implications for climate change. Hilbourn was nevertheless at pains to keep reminding us that fisheries do have environmental impacts.

Annual production Box 1. The environmental cost of food production
Water use (km3) / yr Fertilisermillions of tonnes / yr Pesticides  thousands of tonnes /yr AntibioticsTonnes / yr Soil loss millions of tonnes /yr Greenhouse gases/yr tons CO2 per tonne live weight
Beef 619 12 76 1998 307 11.3-18.3
Chicken 178 13 79 5085 318 1.4
Pork 598 20 121 4994 487 2.3-4
Capture fisheries ? 0 0 0 0  
Atlantic cod trawl and gill net 0.9-3.8
Atlantic herring purse seine 0.07-0.36


Box 2. Energy efficiency and food production
Production method Energy efficiency (%)
Mussel farming (Scandanavia) 10*
29 North Atlantic fisheries 9.5
Carp farming (Israel) 8.4
Turkey farming (US) 7.7
Tilapia pond culture (Zimbabwe) 6.0
Swine (US) 5.6
Eggs (US) 3.8
Chicken (US) 2.9
Lamb (US) 2.0
Beef (US feedlot) 1.9
 * as an example this means for every 1000 cals of energy put in, you get just  10 cals out

On aquaculture, although there are justified concerns over environmental impacts and   feeding fish with fish (a common practice for many farmed species such as salmon),   it was useful to be reminded that the alternative for using fishmeal for aquaculture is to use it for chicken, beef and pork.

The problem with this is the efficiency of conversion to protein – significantly less protein is produced per unit of input compared to fish. Better then to use fishmeal for fish?

The takeaway for me, is not to eat more fish (unless it is sustainably sourced) given the state of our seas and fisheries.  

But, considering the highly industrialised methods of land-based food production and the associated environmental degradation, energy inefficiency, climate change and biodiversity impacts – then vegetarianism or at least consuming significantly less meat is an option that more of us should seriously consider, and one that we should educate our children about.

Health and safety issues in livestock production, for both workers and consumers, as well as ethical concerns given the inhumane nature of industrialized animal husbandry are another story and provide yet further justification for us to ponder the ‘less meat’ route.

And of the meat we eat? – as consumers we can vote  as we buy – by purchasing organically farmed and locally grown organic food  – for those who need persuading,  I recommend watching the documentary ‘Food Inc.’

Catch it if You Can

sleclue —  March 25, 2010 — 3 Comments

Our oceans are in deep trouble.  A growing population with an insatiable appetite for seafood has driven exploitation of our seas to such an extent, that some scientists predict a global collapse of fish stocks by 2048, or thereabouts.

Daniel Pauly, a fisheries professor at the University of British Columbia, likens these dire straits to Bernard Madoff’s now infamous ponzi scheme. As our oceans have been plundered and fish stocks declined dramatically we simply moved our efforts to exploit stocks elsewhere.

Pauly’s reasoning is simple:  Madoffs’ scheme required a pool of new investors to generate revenues for past buyers and when these disappeared so did the scheme.  The global fishing industry similarly requires new stocks to continue and when the supply is ultimately exhausted a collapse is inevitable.

The consequences for us all, however, are far beyond the havoc created by Madoff.

Numerous factors contribute to the crisis. Perhaps foremost among these is the combination of increasingly sophisticated technology that can locate all manner of fish and the phenomenal industrialisation of a once relatively benign practice.

As with now intensive land-based food production, the technology and the scale of fishing is almost beyond comprehension. The techniques that now imperil our ocean life range from bottom trawling, which rapes vast planes of the ocean floor, to deployment of Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) and its consequent bycatch.

In Charles Clover’s relatively recent documentary ‘the end of the line’, bottom trawling is likened to ploughing a field seven times in one year. Fish, indeed the entire marine environment, simply don‘t stand a chance if we continue as we are.

Is talk of a potential collapse scaremongering? A look at statistics indicates otherwise. In a 2003 paper, Ransom A. Myers & Boris Worm wrote that declines of large predators in coastal regions have extended throughout the global ocean, with potentially serious consequences for ecosystems.

Part of the problem remains that fishing is heavily subsidised and global regulation is for the moment at least, not a force to be reckoned with. The dramatic decline of the majestic blue fin tuna and many shark species serve as cases in point.

The fate of the Blue Fin was sealed just a few days ago when the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) failed to ban international trade. This unfortunate species now faces extinction in the not-distant future.

Sadly, the short-term gain of a few has once again triumphed at the expense of the environment.  In the meantime, things are as bad if not worse for sharks.

Despite evidence to suggest that many shark species are critically endangered, only five species are protected under CITES. Of those, it is perhaps encouraging that two are banned from international trade, however on the down side it would seem that these are virtually extinct already.  In Hong Kong, which accounts for 52% of global shark fin imports, there is no regulation beyond CITES.

As fish stocks decline we become ever more cunning in hiding the truth as we turn to less attractive species for food.  Rock salmon served in many fish and chip shops in the UK for example is actually dog fish, a species of shark.

As Clover points out in his book, other unappealing species that are ending up on our plates are being creatively recast – black scabbard has become sabre and the increasingly endangered Orange Roughy is now known as empereur.

The problem is deeply worrying – and not just because hundreds of millions of people depend on fish for animal protein, or that fishermen the world over rely on healthy catches for their livelihoods.  Havoc is quite literally being wreaked on an essential resource on which depend for survival.

We are causing significant changes that we don’t yet fully understand to a vast ecosystem that requires balance to provide the benefits we take for granted.

As an example, there have been increasing reports of mass jellyfish swarms. One of the causes commonly cited is industrial-scale fishing.  Since fish prey on jellyfish, it shouldn’t be surprising that a consequence of overfishing is an explosion of these creatures in our seas.

What then is the answer? Aquaculture has increased dramatically in recent years but unfortunately, this practice is not the panacea we might like it to be and in fact has its own issues.

One concern is the widespread practice of raising predatory fish such as salmon as opposed to herbivorous fish such as carp.  A Worldwatch Institute report produced two years ago offers the following startling facts:

  • Farmed seafood, or aquaculture now provides 42% of the world’s seafood supply and is on target to exceed half in the next decade
  • The average per capita consumption of farmed seafood has increased nearly ten fold since 1970
  • Early fish farming raising herbivorous species on vegetable scraps and increased the overall supply of seafood
  • The growth in modern fish farms focused on large-value predatory fish fed on smaller fish is now contributing to a net drain on seafood supply
  • There is a growing scarcity of fish feed.   Today, about  37% of marine fish landings are reduced to fishmeal and fish oil
  • Four fish groups – marine shrimp, marine fish, trout and salmon consume more than half of the world’s fishmeal even though they represent just seven percent of global aquaculture and less than three percent of total seafood production
  • Twenty kgs of feed is required to produce just 1 kg of tuna (it is worthy of note that tuna farming or ranching as it appears to be known, for the most part involves catching juvenile wild tuna which are then caged and fattened with fish protein )

In summary, the Report indicates that despite ongoing improvements in feed ingredients and technologies, the rapid growth of fish farming in recent decades has effectively outweighed any gains in feeding efficiency. Modern fish farming is a net drain on the world’s seafood.

As a fish eater, it’s difficult to find sources of sustainable seafood such as Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified varieties and blatant mislabelling or creative naming of fish don’t help.

While there are many fish guides around, I for one find them hard to use, given the lack of knowledge of staff in restaurants and supermarkets and the need to identify for example the location of the catch.  Still I use these where I can (iphone apps have been helpful) and am increasing my awareness of locally caught ‘non-endangered‘ seafood.

In this instance, the low-hanging fruit perhaps are species such as blue fin and to a lesser extent yellow fin tuna and farmed salmon, amongst others, that are easier to recognise and so avoid.

Another approach is simply to reduce consumption of the larger long-lived fish with lower fecundity and go for the smaller short-lived species that reproduce rapidly – sardines and anchovies for example.

If chefs can be creative with these smaller species, maybe eating anchovies can become as trendy as blue fin sushi.  The UN FAO points out that consuming longer-lived species such as Orange Roughy, which can reach 200 years in age, means that fish on your dinner plate could have hatched at the time of Napoleon Bonaparte!

But on the bright side, with the Oscar for best documentary going to “the Cove”, perhaps even Hollywood finally has taken note of the plight of marine species.

Films such as “The End of the Line”, “Sharkwater” and “Food Inc.” make it easier for all of us to understand enough to consume more sustainably, ask more questions of those supplying our food and lobby our governments to act.

In the meantime, I look forward to the release of “Oceans “ on Earth day next month – a film that by all accounts promises a breathtaking view of the beauty and power of a valuable resource for which we sadly seem to have little regard.