As he waited patiently at the port, it was the nauseating smell that hit him first. After three months of undercover work, Gary Stokes was finally about to make his biggest breakthrough. But nothing could have prepared him for what he was about to see.
Hong Kong-based Stokes works as Asia Director at the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. As part of his job with the organization, he takes a hands-on approach to marine conservation.
After all, when ex-Greenpeace member Paul Watson founded the Sea Shepherds in 1977, he wanted to take more direct and militant action in the name of conservation. The group, therefore, is known for using large vessels to police the oceans, and it is considered controversial by some.
The conservation issues that the organization focuses on include illegal fishing, factory whaling and seal hunting. So when Sea Shepherd members think they see these practices occurring, they will intervene. Sometimes, they employ methods such as ramming and even limpet mine usage to do so.
In 2016 Stokes was working on a major investigation for Sea Shepherd Global. The organization had seemingly discovered that large shipping companies, such as Maersk, Cathay Pacific and Virgin Australia Cargo, were carrying unusual cargos. And not only were the hauls out of the ordinary, but they were also of great interest to Sea Shepherd.
Moreover, the companies that were carrying the loads had previously declared an embargo on these exact items. But now Stokes suspected that some cunning people had managed to get around the ban. So after three months of gathering evidence, Stokes and his team went to find out what was going on.
Stokes headed down to the docks in Hong Kong, and it was there that his greatest fears were reportedly confirmed. As he witnessed men unloading dozens of white bags off a shipping container, his heart sunk. According to Stokes, that’s because each bag was filled with shark fins.
Stokes knew they were shark fins without even having to look inside the sacks. “It’s so strong, the smell,” he explained to The Dodo in 2017. “It’s like cat pee on steroids.” But what made everything worse was the logo printed on the side of the container.
“When we found the big Maersk containers, the alarm bell went off because Maersk was the first to ban shark fins in 2010,” Stokes told The Dodo. “So when you see a big container with Maersk on the side and they’re unloading shark fin, you think, ‘Hello, there’s something going on here.’”
Hong Kong is one of the major hubs of the shark-fin trade. As a result, it’s not unusual to find huge shipping containers full of shark fins by the harbor. And according to Stokes, each container can hold thousands of the fins.
Shark fins are seen as a delicacy in China and some other Asian countries. Moreover, the ingredient is often regarded as a status symbol. With the price at more than $100 a bowl, consuming shark-fin soup is an easy way to show off your wealth to your acquaintances.
However, the method of collecting shark fins is barbaric. Every year, some 73 million sharks will have their fins hacked off before being dumped back into the sea. Mutilated, the sharks can no longer swim and slowly drown as they are starved of oxygen.
Since 2013, shark finning has been banned in the European Union. However, international waters remain unregulated. The practice is outlawed in the Eastern Pacific, but it still occurs in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean.
According to shark conservation groups, the popularity of shark fins represents a very real threat to the species. And the situation isn’t helped by the fact that large swathes of the industry remain unregulated. The appetite for shark fins, then, shows little sign of slowing down.
However, there are some measures in place to prevent people from exporting shark fins. One of the best ways was the shipping embargo. So it was important for Stokes to find out how so many shark fins ended up being shipped by a company that had previously banned them.
Stokes believed poachers may have gotten around regulations by labeling their shipments as seafood rather than shark fins. “Because of that, it didn’t ring any alarm bells when they were checking in to ship,” he explained to The Dodo
In a statement, Sea Shepherd Global said it lays no blame with the shipping companies. “We see these responsible companies as victims of the ruthless shark-fin trade who will stop at nothing to continue their barbaric trade,” a statement read. “We appreciate their willingness to close up these loopholes in an effort to save shark populations.”
Responding to Sea Shepherd Global’s findings, Tim Smith from Maersk said, “We are grateful to Sea Shepherd for their investigative work to highlight this problem. We are working with Sea Shepherd and other NGOs as well as with HK Customs and other stakeholders to tighten our procedures to ensure the ban we place on carriage of shark fin is effective in the future.”
What concerned Stokes the most about unlabeled shipments was the possibility that they could include fins from endangered animals such as scalloped hammerheads and oceanic whitetip sharks. “When you see a container full of shark fins that hasn’t even been checked by customs, you wonder, ‘How many endangered species are mixed in with those legally caught sharks?’” Stokes said.
However, the situation isn’t all bad. Thanks to the Sea Shepherd investigation, many major cargo companies are now looking into their procedures to help weed out undeclared shipments. Hopefully, then, endangered sharks can be saved before it’s too late.