HONG KONG -- China's largest shipping company COSCO might have won a public perception battle recently with its move to ban the shipment of shark fins, but the majority of its logistics peers on the mainland are yet to make a similar pledge for the key ingredient used in a traditional Chinese soup.
While some environmentalists have applauded COSCO's efforts, a global watch list published by environmental groups shows that China's largest airlines -- China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines and flag carrier Air China have yet to reveal a position on shark fins. The three state-owned airlines did not immediately respond to requests for comments.
Shark fin soup is a delicacy and a staple at Chinese weddings and over Chinese New Year celebrations. Every year, fins from nearly 73 million sharks are used in shark fin soup. But shark finning is a controversial practice for its cruelty -- the fins are lobbed off and the sharks are dumped back into the ocean to die. Overfishing has also resulted in some species of sharks becoming endangered.
Official statistics show that Hong Kong accounts for 50% of the global shark fin trade every year. Of that, 92% is transported to the territory by boat and the rest by plane.
Globally, some 16 container shipping lines and more than 30 airlines -- including most of the region's top carriers such as Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways, Taiwan's China Airlines, Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines, AirAsia and Garuda Indonesia have adopted a blanket embargo on shark fins as of Aug. 3, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Hong Kong Express, a subsidiary of private tourism conglomerate HNA Group, became China's first airline to join the ban in May, but its sister Hainan Airlines -- the country's fourth-largest carrier is yet to openly adopt the practice.
Another notable absentee from the list is Chinese shipping agent Sinotrans, which has been acquired by state-owned conglomerate China Merchants Group. In a reply to the Nikkei Asian Review, a Sinotrans spokesperson did not specify the company's stance on a no-shark fin carriage policy, saying: "Sinotrans has always ... followed relevant laws and regulations and fulfilled our social responsibility when we conduct businesses."
Conservationists attribute the absence of some mainland Chinese companies to the lack of awareness. "Not everyone is a diver and we can't expect them to understand what's happening in the ocean," said Stan Shea, chief marine program coordinator at Bloom Association, a nongovernmental organization focusing on marine life preservation. "Even if some of them have corporate social responsibility polices in place, they are not putting sharks on their priority."
This September, various countries will be pushing for proposals to list more shark species, including silky sharks, under appendix II of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, a legally binding treaty for member states.
Since listing a species means that its trade is by permit only, observers warn of additional risks for logistics companies that might unknowingly facilitate illegal business. "Different species of sharks can be hard to tell, so a blanket ban on shark fins is a once-and-for-all method for shipping companies to avoid troubles," said Tracy Tsang, a senior program officer for sharks at WWF Hong Kong.
In July, China COSCO Shipping, parent of its Hong Kong's listed unit China COSCO Holdings, became the country's first state-owned company to join the ranks of Maersk and Mediterranean Shipping Company in declaring a ban on shark fins.
COSCO is the world's fourth-largest shipping company with a market share of about 8%. Its commitment means 68% of the world's shipping lines have taken steps to outlaw the practice. France's CMA CGM and Taiwan's Evergreen Marine, two of the five largest shipping lines globally, will only transport shark fins if they are not endangered.
COSCO's change of mind came after concerns raised by various environmental groups following the seizure of nearly one ton of endangered hammerhead shark fins inside a COSCO shipping vessel in July.
In a letter to the Hong Kong office of the U.S. conservation group WildAid on July 24, COSCO's director and president Wan Min wrote that his company would "make sure that no shark fin-related products are carried by our vessels through stricter monitoring and regulation. COSCO would also "pledge to implement the 'no shark fin' carriage policies as other global container lines," although it did not specify a timeline for implementing the ban.
Alex Hofford, a wildlife campaigner at WildAid, praised COSCO for its efforts but said that the battle was not over. While smaller shipping rivals may have copied COSCO's example to ban shark fin, others may see this as an opportunity to "mop up some business spillover" from industry leaders, he said. "We simply don't know."
Asked whether the shark fin trade would go underground as major shipping companies shun the business, Hofford said: "We hope that by making it logistically difficult for the trade to ship sharks, many will just give up faced with increasing controls and regulations.
"Even if the trade goes underground, that is preferable to the status quo before the ... shipping bans," he added.