Gary Stokes is the Southeast Asia director of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and he has seen it all when it comes to illegal poaching and shipping of marine wildlife. Since he manages a hub of illegal activity related to marine wildlife — Hong Kong — he’s kept pretty busy, which is something he wishes weren’t the case.
Nevertheless, when he received a call to investigate a shipping container in Hong Kong that had piqued the interest of authorities, he made it to the scene as quickly as possible. He watched as men unloaded dozens of white sacks and, with a heavy heart, he already knew what the contents were.
“It’s so strong, the smell,” Stokes told The Dodo. “It’s like cat pee on steroids.” He was talking, of course, about the hundreds of thousands of shark fins being unloaded.
It’s likely that the smell is to blame for authorities discovering this huge haul of shark fins, but whatever the reason it’s a good thing that the shipment was stopped in its tracks. Though it’s devastating that countless sharks had already died and that their cause of death, the fins that some people consider a delicacy, would never serve their purpose, it’s much better this way.
Stokes explained that he recently discovered that shipping companies who recently banned the transportation of shark fins were back at it, and they were doing it covertly.
“When we found the big Maersk containers, the alarm bell went off because Maersk was the first to ban shark fins in 2010,” Stokes said. “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.’”
This launched a 3-month long investigation by Stokes and a small team that found that big companies like Maersk, Virgin Australia Cargo and Cathay Pacific, who had all banned the transportation of shark fins, were all involved in carrying the fins.
Sadly, Stokes’ job entails a ton of raids every year that unveil different shipments and operations involving hundreds of thousands of shark fins. At the end of last year, he was at the center of another True Activist story that reported on a rooftop raid where countless shark fins were found drying.
“It’s a gut-wrenching feeling,” Stokes said. “As a diver, the chance of seeing a shark on a dive is just so slim — it’s amazing if you get to see one. And then here, I’m seeing hundreds and thousands of dead sharks right in front of me, and I think, ‘How is it possible that there are any left in the ocean?’”
Shark fins are used in shark fin soup all across China and other parts of Asia, but the hub of transportation occurs in Hong Kong because it’s still legal to import fins there. A single bowl of soup can cost well over $100, but this doesn’t stop it from being extremely popular; it’s estimated that 73 million sharks die every single year for their fins.
The fins are extracted in the cruelest way, too. Sharks are captured and their fins are cut off while they’re still alive. The fishermen then throw the live sharks back into the ocean, but without fins the sharks can’t move, which means their gills don’t work and they can’t breathe. The sharks essentially drown, starve, or bleed to death at the bottom of the ocean. The only possible mercy for them is if a predator comes by and eats them before they can suffer for too long.
These big shipping companies get away with transporting shark fins, despite publicly announcing the ban, because they mark the goods as “seafood” or “marine products” and hope no one checks. After meeting with the companies involved, the execs seemed to be pretty concerned about the issue and they all spoke frankly about what could be done to better regulate the cargo.
Despite setbacks like these, Stokes is optimistic about the future for sharks, as awareness, further legislation against the selling/importing shark fins, and communication with shipping agents expands. If you would like to help Sea Shepherd with their endeavor to help marine wildlife, you can donate here.