WASHINGTON, January 29, 2014—After a four-year investigation, Hog Kong-based conservation group Wildlife Risk released a report Monday uncovering a large-scale whale shark slaughterhouse in Zhejiang Province in eastern China.
Posing as buyers, activists Alex Hofford and Paul Hilton visited the “China Wenzhou Yueqing Marine Organisms Health Protection Foods Company” in the town of PuQi several times between January 2010 and December of 2013.
“It’s a lot of carnage in one place, a lot of damage. It was pretty overwhelming,” said Hilton of the factory’s every-day activities. “We walked into the courtyard, and there were shark fins everywhere. I didn’t think it would be so blatant.”
Whale sharks are gentle giants, growing up to 12 meters (40 feet). They are the largest fish in the world’s oceans, feeding on plankton and small marine life.
Listed as an endangered species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, whale sharks are also in Appendix II of the UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), of which China is a signatory. Appendix II requires signatories to show proof that exports of species listed are derived from a sustainably managed population.
The PuQi factory also buys and processes basking and great white sharks. Both species are protected as well.
Hofford and Hilton claim that around 600 whale sharks are killed and processed annually in the PuQi factory, which produces an average of 220 tons of shark oil derived from the three species every year.
Alarmingly, the authors claim that the PuQi factory is only one of many factories in China that buy and process endangered shark species and their products. The endangered shark business is extremely lucrative, bringing in over $30,000 per shark.
Restaurants in China buy large shark fins to display in windows and entrances. Fins, stomach, flesh and lips are also used in the restaurant trade to make shark fin soup and other dishes. The skin is used to make handbags.
The most lucrative part of the shark trade is the oil extracted from shark liver, which is used in skin care products, lipstick and Omega-3 supplements. According to the authors, Omega-3 supplements made with shark oil are being sold internationally, in direct violation of CITES as well as China’s own laws.
The authors also allege that other shark products are being smuggled out of China to places like France and Italy, mainly shark fins for soup and leather for handbags.
The news comes as somewhat of a surprise after recent reports suggested that in 2012 the shark fin market in China shrank by 50 to 70 percent, thanks to the efforts of Western conservation groups.
Wildlife Risk’s undercover investigation revealed that the same migratory whale sharks present in the waters of Australia are being caught in the South China Sea as well as off the waters near the Philippines, Indonesia, and as far as Mexico.
“How these harmless creatures, these gentle giants of the deep, can be slaughtered on such an industrial scale is beyond belief – all for human vanity; lipsticks, face creams, health supplements, shark fin soup restaurants etc.,” said the authors in a joint statement. “We firmly believe the trade must stop, and it must stop now, or else these animals will eventually face extinction.”
Hilton and Hofford said that consumers must be educated to avoid shark products.
“Trade in endangered shark and manta ray products is both environmentally unsustainable and morally unethical,” wrote the authors. “If we hope to save species such as the whale shark from extinction, we must hold individuals accountable for violation of international protection laws and demand transparency so that consumers can make educated decisions about the products that they buy.”
The authors also claim that there is an economic argument for banning shark fishing. In places where whale sharks are known to congregate, local tourism has seen a lucrative boom of ecotravelers and scuba divers. According to a report by the PEW Environment Group, quoted by Hilton and Hofford, whale shark- related tourism is worth $47.5 million worldwide.