By Didi Kirsten Tatlow
Tipped off by a Chinese wildlife protection group that a “shark slaughterhouse” of vulnerable species, including the whale shark, was operating in a town in Zhejiang Province on China’s eastern seaboard, the activists Alex Hofford and Paul Hilton traveled there to take a look.
What they saw shook them – whale sharks, the biggest fish in the world, a tropical species the size of a bus (they can grow to 12 meters, or about 40 feet, long) butchered by hand on a slippery floor. The sharks are listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning they are within the “extinction risk” category.
“It’s a lot of carnage in one place, a lot of damage. It was pretty overwhelming,” said Mr. Hilton, describing the scene at the factory that he and Mr. Hofford visited three times, posing as buyers, in an undercover investigation that began in 2010 and concluded last December. “We walked into the courtyard, and there were shark fins everywhere. I didn’t think it would be so blatant.”
Said Mr. Hofford: “It was shocking. You go in there and they were laid out on the floor, all chopped up. You nearly want to vomit. When you have swum with them, it’s very upsetting.”
In a report released this week, the two men allege that about 600 whale sharks are being slaughtered annually for their stomach, lips, cartilage, oil and fins at the China Wenzhou Yueqing Marine Organisms Health Protection Foods Company, in Puqi township near Wenzhou.
Basking and great white sharks were also being “industrially processed,” said the two members of the nongovernmental organization WildLifeRisk in the report, titled “Planet’s biggest slaughter of whale sharks exposed in Pu Qi, Zhejiang Province, China.”
All three species are protected in China, which means it is illegal to hunt them without a special permit granted by the government, the report says. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a quarter of the world’s sharks and rays are threatened with extinction.
CITES, the intergovernmental Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, lists the whale and basking sharks as Appendix II animals. CITES describes Appendix II animals as “species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.” There is international pressure to put the great white shark on Appendix II as well.
Several attempts to contact the company failed to elicit comment. Asked if it was processing whale sharks, a woman who answered the telephone said, “Who said this? I don’t know.” She declined to transfer a call to her manager or to others in the factory and hung up.
The company’s website advertises several different shark products, including shark floss, cartilage and stomach, neatly packaged in colorful bags. It’s not clear what kind of shark they come from.
Fins were generally kept in China and flesh was sold as food, while the skins were sold into the bag industry, the new report’s authors said. However, the oil often was exported overseas, including to the United States and Canada, as health supplements or for the cosmetic industry, they said.
A manager at the company, whom they identified as Li Guang, said shark products were being labeled as tilapia, a commonly farmed fish, Mr. Hilton said in an interview.
May Mei is the China program manager of WildAid, a nongovernmental organization based in the United States and China, whose public representative is the former basketball star Yao Ming and which campaigns to stop people eating shark fin soup. She called the report “pretty shocking” and “convincing.”
“Their photographs, the detail, the amount of time they spent doing it, the specific names they have, it seems very concrete,” said Ms. Mei.
“Domestic Chinese media are pretty shocked, too,” she said, but added that in terms of overall shark processing, China was not thought to be the biggest location any longer; Indonesia was.
Still, she said, “Our control system just isn’t good enough. And we have to teach fishermen what’s a protected species and what’s not. Supervision at all levels has to improve, including at customs departments.”
The sharks are believed to be caught by fishermen along migratory routes from western Australia past the coast of China, Mr. Hilton said. A single whale shark – it’s considered a gentle creature and feeds on plankton – can be sold for around $31,000 at port.
“Opportunistic fishermen based in fishing ports of all sizes up and down the eastern seaboard of China, from Guangdong Province in the South to Shandong Province in the North, are catching whole whale sharks either as by-catch, or as targeted by-catch (intentionally),” the report said.
Oil from the livers – basking sharks were particularly fruitful, Mr. Li reportedly told the men – was sent to another processing plant, on China’s Hainan Island, Hainan Jiahua Marine Products Bio-Pharmaceutical Company, they wrote.
A person who gave her name as Pan Pingman answered the telephone in the Hainan company sales department and denied it was doing anything illegal. She said she had not seen the report.
“In Hainan the oil is blended with other types of shark liver oil in preparation for export to the United States and Canada in contravention of the internationally-binding CITES agreement,” the report said. The activists identified one company they said was receiving the product: Omojo, based in Washington State.
The company’s website says, “We control quality from end to end, ensuring 100% traceability — and 100% accountability.” Efforts to reach the company were not immediately successful. Video.