HK Express, a Hong Kong airline, recently announced that it will prohibit large consignments of shark fins being shipped as cargo, exemplifying a growing effort among not only airlines, but also container shipping lines, to stop the often illegal practice of shark finning.

Conservationists have been reaching out to airlines and shipping lines to join the "fly #sharkfree" movement in order to curb the transportation of shark fins from ports to markets, where the fins are purchased for shark fin soup that is still regarded as a delicacy in some countries.

Photo: Shark fins for sale in a market. Credit: Project Manhattan, Wikimedia Commons

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"We believe that cutting the supply chain of shark fins to markets is a compelling way to reduce supply and demand," Alex Hofford, a wildlife campaigner at WildAid Hong Kong, told Discovery News. WildAid is leading "fly #sharkfree."

Other airlines committed to the cause are British Airways, Iberia, Kenya Airways, American Airlines, Sri Lankan Airlines, Virgin, Jet Airways, COPA, Air France, Swiss, Thai Airways, Cebu Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Etihad Airways, Air Seychelles, Philippine Airlines, Air Asia, Garuda Indonesia, Korean Airlines, Asiana Airlines, Emirates, Eva Air, Qantas, Air New Zealand, Qatar Airways, KLM, FinnAir, Lufthansa, Lan Chile/LATAM Airlines Group and Aeroméxico.

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Regarding HK Express' recent decision to join the ever-growing list, Andrew Cowen, director and CEO of the airline, said, "As Hong Kong's low-fare airline, we believe it is vital for us to contribute to a more sustainable future for sharks and help restore the marine ecosystems."

Sixteen of the top 20 global container shipping lines have also in recent months announced their shark free cargo shipment policies. These include Maersk, MSC, Hapag-Lloyd, Hamburg Süd, Hanjin Shipping, Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL), OOCL, APL, Yang Ming, NYK Line, UASC, HMM, "K" Line, PIL (Pacific International Line), ZIM, Wan Hai Lines.

Photo: Maersk Kalamata in the Seattle harbor. Wikimedia Commons

Two of the world's largest transporters of goods, Federal Express and Cosco, have so far been resistant to calls for change, Hofford said, but there is at least one petition hoping to affect FedEx's current stance.

Hofford admits that the restrictions on transportation of shark products represent just one step in the overall goal of stopping shark finning, and that many challenges remain. HK Express, for example, can only attempt to monitor "large consignments of shark fins" because it would be difficult for the airline to track shark fins and related products being transported in carry-on luggage.

Also, Hofford said, "Enforcement of the airline bans to ensure that the bans are not mere 'lip service' is a matter that we are looking into."

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He said that the wildlife monitoring network called TRAFFIC as well as the International Air Transport Association are evaluating enforcement training for staff working in the transport and logistics sectors.

Hofford added, "Certainly more needs to be done to ensure that front line staff accepting shipments in shipping lines or airline cargo divisions are alert to certain high risk shippers who have shipped shark fins in the past, as well as new shippers who could be looking to ship shark fins by mislabeling or mis-declaring them as 'dried seafood,' 'dried goods,' or 'dried products.'"

Photo: Shark fins in Hong Kong. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Laundering illegally caught sharks can involve highly endangered species such as hammerhead sharks, which fall under the international treaty CITES.

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Last year, the conservation groups Turtle Island Restoration Network and PRETOMA reported evidence that a company named "Inversiones Cruz Z, S.A." located in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, sold shark fins to Yue Hing Shark's Fin & Marine Products Co. Ltd. In Hong Kong. The conservationists say that the fins were flown from Costa Rica to Hong Kong via stop-overs in the U.S., violating U.S. law.

"Given the routing of cargo shipments to China from Costa Rica, these shipments clearly touched down in the U.S., where they should have been confiscated under the ESA (Endangered Species Act) and thus been prevented from further trade and sale. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to enforce the ESA, and allowed the shipments to continue on to Hong Kong," Turtle Island and PRETOMA said in a jointly issued statement.

Then there is the matter of airlines and shipping lines transporting shark cartilage pills. WildAid has discovered a factory in China that processes shark cartilage as well as manta rays.

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Even with all of the challenges, the good news, aside from the growing "fly #sharkfree" movement, concerns changing attitudes about killing sharks, especially just for their fins.

Joan Chan, campaigns director for the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, said, "Shark fin is an unnecessary and outdated tradition," adding that "time is running out fast for our oceans and the sharks who live in them."

WildAid has launched related public awareness campaigns that leverage the talents of celebrities and business leaders. Recent ones have involved prominent CEOs from China, popular Chinese film actor Jiang Wen and actress and model Maggie Q. It's hoped that they and others can help shrink public demand for shark fin soup and other shark products.