Conservation NGO WildLifeRisk has put out a press release describing a slaughterhouse for sharks in China’s Zhejiang province. Shark processing is nothing new, and can be legitimate in some managed fisheries. What makes this case different is the number of animals in question, and that the targets of the processing include whale sharks, white sharks and basking sharks, all three of which are CITES listed species. CITES listing means that international trade in all or part of the species in question is illegal without special permits (say, for scientific purposes), effectively prohibiting markets for these species [NOTE: I have left in this original wording of this sentence, but please see my important edit appended at the end].
While the images, collected between 2010 and Dec 2013, clearly show one or more whale sharks being butchered, WildLifeRisk also submitted samples of “shark oil” to the lab of Mahmood Shivji at Nova Southeastern University’s Guy Harvey Research Institute for DNA based identification. The team there confirmed the presence of white shark and basking shark in the samples, but “inconclusive” for the whale shark. I called up Mahmood to ask him what that meant and he clarified that the sequence was consistent with whale shark for the supposed whale shark sample, but that the data quality wasn’t good enough to make a unequivocal ID, possibly due to the processes involved in rendering the liver down to an oil. You hardly need a confirmed DNA ID in my opinion, since no other shark has the size and spotted pattern evident from the photos.
Perhaps most damning of all, the report links to a Vimeo video apparently taken in covert fashion, wherein the proprietor of the facility and his brother describe how much whale shark, blue shark, and basking shark oil they produce in a year, where they send it and what they do with the skins. He also admits to relabeling the oil and smuggling the material overseas (specifically to Chinese restaurants and grocers in Europe), presumably to get around the CITES restrictions. He also describes receiving substantial numbers of whale sharks from Taiwan, where they have been protected for several years.
This is one of the more appalling instances of shark exploitation that I know of, and I can’t help but be particularly appalled about the inclusion of whale sharks. As the WildLifeRisk folks point out in their release, sharks can be worth way more alive as part of the ecotourism trade than they are dead and rendered down to a bottle of oil. But putting all that aside, whale sharks and basking sharks are magnificent, peaceful, filter feeding giants, and white sharks are an awesome and misunderstood predator. All of them are among the most spectacular animals on the planet and they deserve and need our protection, especially in light of the recent IUCN report stating that a quarter of all shark and ray species are at risk of extinction. They all have low reproductive potential, which means that they are not very resilient in the face of the kind of harvest shown in this report. This isn’t a problem restricted to China, either; the whale sharks from the South China Sea may travel through the Indian and Pacific oceans, including many other countries that feature whale shark ecotourism. So, while this specific factory is on Chinese soil, this is most definitely the world’s problem and many nations have a stake.
What can we do to help remedy this sort of situation? I see three things. One comes in the form of this very important exposé from WildLifeRisk: we need to recognise and define the problem. Second, we need to enforce existing regulations that are designed to prevent this sort of tragedy. Third, we need to educate consumers so that the market forces that motivate these business practices cease to be. WildAid has had great success with their campaign “When the buying stops, the killing can too”, where they have recruited serious star power in the form of basketball star Yao Ming and others, to reduce the market for shark fin soup in Chinese traditional cuisine. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting people to realise “what’s in the bowl”. The story goes that the Chinese name for shark fin soup is “fish wing soup”, and many who consumed it had no idea from where it came. Once alerted, they stopped eating it. WildAid reports a significant success on the fin soup front, including a drop in shark fin soup consumption rates and the removal of the product from official government events. It seems that a fairly simple extension of the successful approach of WildAid might help to reduce the motivations for the sort of unconscionable slaughter revealed by WildLifeRisk. Perhaps you can spread the news to everyone you know and ask that they do the same, so that we might not need to see these sorts of disturbing images again. Who knows, maybe some of our Chinese readers can help spread the word, too, because I for one prefer this:
Are you in China and reading this? If so, we’d love to hear from you. Please chime in in the comments section with your perspectives, we value your feedback.
EDIT: I have had some queries about CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – so here’s my best understanding of what it means and why it is important in this case. The three species here (white, whale and basking) are all CITES Appendix II listed, which means that fishing states would have to demonstrate that any exports were derived from a sustainably-managed population and to allow exports and imports to be monitored by a third party. This effectively extinguishes most markets because the “sustainably managed population” criterion is an near impossible burden of proof when it comes to listed species, which are typically listed in the first place because they are vulnerable to or threatened with extinction. Moreover, CITES listed products cannot be monitored effectively when mixed with other species and smuggled, as admitted in the video. I think we can safely assume that “smuggle” in this case means that they didn’t have a CITES export permit from the Chinese government, which is a signatory to the CITES treaty. I’ve done CITES export permitting for scientific samples from whale sharks, although not from China, and it was neither simple nor straightforward.