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Will bans on shark fin shipments catch on in China?

HONG KONG China Cosco Shipping, the largest shipping company in China, garnered public relations points with its recent move to ban shipments of shark fins, but the majority of its logistics peers on the mainland have yet to make a similar pledge regarding the main ingredient in one of China's most prized soups.

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 no stated position on the issue. 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 banquets. Every year, nearly 73 million shark fins are harvested. But "shark finning," as it is known, is a controversial practice -- the fins are lopped off and the sharks are dumped back into the ocean to die. Overfishing has also resulted in some species becoming endangered.

According to official statistics, roughly 50% of the shark fins traded globally each year pass through Hong Kong. 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 Asia's top carriers, such as Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways, China Airlines of Taiwan, Thai Airways International, Singapore Airlines, AirAsia and Garuda Indonesia -- had adopted a blanket embargo on shark fins as of Aug. 3, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Hong Kong Express Airways, 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 -- has yet to openly do the same.

Meanwhile Sinotrans, which was acquired by state-owned conglomerate China Merchants Group, declined to specify its stance on carrying shark fins, saying only that it has followed all relevant laws.

Conservationists attribute the absence of some mainland Chinese companies to a lack of awareness. "Not everyone is a diver," said Stan Shea, chief marine program coordinator at Bloom Association, a marine life preservation group. "Many are not putting sharks on their priority."

SEA CHANGE? This September, various countries will be pushing to list more shark species, including silky sharks, under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a legally binding treaty for member states.

Listing a species means that its trade is by permit only, and observers warn of additional risks for logistics companies that might unknowingly facilitate illegal business. "Different species of sharks can be hard to tell apart, 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 Hong Kong's listed China Cosco Holdings, became the country's first state-owned company to declare a ban on shark fins. It did not specify a timeline for implementing the ban, however.

Cosco is the world's fourth-largest shipping company, with a global market share of about 8%. Its commitment means 68% of the world's shipping lines have taken steps to ban the practice.

Cosco's decision came after environmental groups raised concerns following the seizure of nearly 1 ton of endangered hammerhead shark fins inside a Cosco shipping vessel in July.

Alex Hofford, a campaigner at U.S. conservation group WildAid, praised Cosco for its efforts but said the battle is not over. While smaller shipping rivals may follow Cosco's lead, others may see this as an opportunity to "mop up some business spillover" from industry leaders, he said. "We simply don't know."

But, he added, "even if the [shark fin] trade goes underground, that is preferable to the status quo before the ... shipping bans."

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