Yesterday I was lucky enough to be invited to the Swire Institute Of Marine Science.
Otherwise known by its acronym, SWIMS, the marine biology institute is part of the University of Hong Kong, and is located in probably the most isolated part of Hong Kong.
It's right on the tip of Hong Kong Island's Cape D'Aguilar. To get there you have to pass along a very long and windy single track road with pot holes. Even though the institute is located in a marine reserve, where fishing is prohibited under Hong Kong law, incursions by fishermen are not uncommon.
'X' marks the spot.
I met a Adela Jing Li, a student researcher from Hebei Province in mainland China. Pictured at right in the aquarium is a sea urchin, a nudibranch, a sea cucumber and some soft corals. I think.
Adela is researching the effects of global warming on the seas around Hong Kong, and the marine organisms in it. Those are fish larvae in the petri dish. If I remember correctly, Adela's experiment has something to do with seeing how ever so slight water temperature increases can affect fish, and their reproductive cycles.
Not sure what that has to do with this starfish though.
Adela's fellow student is Stella Wong, who is pictured above reaching into an aquarium full of coral samples. Stella is an ecotoxicology PhD candidate studying "ecotoxicology and risk assessment of engineered nanomaterials, in particular nano metal oxides and carbon nanotubes, on tropical marine organisms". Quite.
Both students are members of the Aquatic Toxicology & Ecological Risk Assessment (ATERA) Research Group.
To get an overview photo of SWIMS, I climbed up a small hill to find a student hostel which is very idyllic, peaceful, and quiet. And cheap too at HK$60 a night for HKU students. Also on the hill is Hong Kong's oldest lighthouse which dates back to colonial days when the territory was a juicy target for pirates.
Such a beautiful spot, I hope I can return to SWIMS soon!
ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA MARINE BIOLOGY LIGHTHOUSE PHOTOGRAPHER
Finally. A positive fishy story from Hong Kong! This time from the Hong Kong Food Expo.
This lady from Japanese company Tosakatsuo Suisan Co. Ltd is holding a tray of delicious 'pole-and-line' wild-caught skipjack tuna sashimi. For the unfamiliar, 'pole-and-line' fishing is a traditional, selective, therefore more sustainable, way of fishing for tuna. Only tuna of a certain size are caught, leaving juveniles to grow up to spawning age, and thus replenish future stock. Unlike long-line fisheries, it actually gives the fish a fair chance and is not greedy. In case you were wondering, that's 'pole-and-line' fishing happening on TV in the background of the photo.
Industrial 'long-line' tuna fisheries are essentially to blame for the global collapse in tuna stocks. This includes the critically endangered bluefin tuna, and the yellowfin tuna, commonly eaten as sashimi, which is also heavily over-fished. Long-line tuna fishing boats have also been heavily criticized by environmentalists for their incidental by-catch of sharks, dolphins, turtles and seabirds. The bottom line is long-line fisheries are causing havoc with the world's marine eco-systems.
And here's a photo taken from the company's website of what 'pole-and-line' fishing looks like:-
In 2009, the Marine Stewardship Council awarded Tosakatsuo Suisan full environmental certification for having achieved sustainable and well-managed fisheries, making them the world's first skipjack tuna fishery to do so. Here's an MSC video all about it:-
Part of the reason I'm posting this is to prove that I'm not anti-Japanese, as has been alleged by a few rabid and anonymous commentors on my Japan's Shark Fin Capital post last month. I even had a death threat from someone called 01kakusan on my YouTube page. I'm not anti-Japanese, I just took some highly emotionally-charged photos in Japan, and then put them online. I let the viewer decide.
No. What Tosakatsuo Suisan are doing is commendable... and they are Japanese.
(For readers in Hong Kong: Pole-and-line caught tuna is available in 'Park n Shop', just look out for the 'Wild Planet' brand.)
But now back to the dodgy stuff...
Unsurprisingly, abalone, (latin genus name: 'haliotis', Chinese name: 鮑魚 'bao yu'), is on sale at the Hong Kong Food Expo. Abalone consumption is controversial because of the widespread depletion of global stocks by poachers and smugglers, many of whom have links to Chinese organized-crime syndicates.
Some larger species of abalone have been so heavily exploited for food that many populations are now severely threatened. That includes the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
South Africa even listed abalone on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix III in 2007, and two species of abalone are listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as 'Endangered' and 'Critically Endangered'.
But no post about seafood (un)sustainability in Hong Kong would be complete without shark fin.
The trade goes on.
According to a Friday report in the Hong Kong Standard, a one metre high shark fin was on display at the Food Expo on Thursday, but I didn't see it anywhere today. It was probably from a whale shark, but I would imagine someone told them that having it around wasn't cool. That is, given the current and growing anti-shark fin sentiment in the city.
This woman was certainly not too keen on me shooting her nice little collection of juvenile shark fins.
I showed her my press pass, and she seemed mad as I continued shooting unharassed.
And let's not forget where all this stuff comes from. Here's an interview with Randall Auraz, from Pretoma, whose friend captured the now (in)famous footage of the live blue shark being finned in Costa Rican waters, that appears at the end of our 'Man & Shark' short movie...
ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA PHOTOGRAPHER
I want to share the good news with the world that our book 'Man & Shark' is now available on Amazon.com
A quick look at the photo credits page of 'Man & Shark' reveals that the images contained inside the book come from the following FOURTEEN photographers;
Mike & Val FRASER
Photographs in the book were taken in the following TWENTY countries, or areas:-
INTERNATIONAL WATERS OF THE WESTERN PACIFIC
(Places marked with an asterisk denote locations we did not go to for the book, but sourced material from)
From the beaches of Africa to the ports of the Middle East, a shark fin odyssey arrives back at ground zero: Hong Kong. 'Man & Shark' is book and short film of the same title, which explores the barbaric practice of shark-finning in developing nations, so that consumers in Hong Kong and China can eat shark fin soup at their weddings, company banquets and celebrations. The book and short film aims to show why sharks, as the ocean's apex predators, are necessary to keep the marine ecosystem in balance. 'Man & Shark' also bears witness to the ignorance of shopkeepers selling shark fin in Hong Kong. And it explores why Chinese people eat shark fin soup in the first place, and the dangers to human health from mercury poisoning.
'Man & Shark' was conceived in Mozambique, Yemen, and Hong Kong, and includes many underwater images from all over the world.
* * *
In detail, 'Man & Shark' follows the journey of a shark's fin, from the back of a shark swimming peacefully in the ocean, to when it is brutally sliced off by fishermen. The book documents the continued voyage of that fin as it makes its way by boat to the dried seafood markets of Hong Kong.
From here, the fin is pictured as it makes its final journey through the kitchens of hotels and restaurants in the city, and into a bowl of soup. Ground zero is where the fin finally slips down the throat of a member of the Hong Kong public, who is largely unaware of the devastating effects of his culinary choice on the marine environment.
The book highlights the co-authors combined experience of photographing sharks in the wild, and the savagery of the shark fin trade across the world. Readers will see the extraordinary beauty of these creatures and realize that the choices they make at the dinner table can make a difference to an entire species.
Both Paul and Alex hope their book will highlight the main reasons why the consumption of shark fin soup is so damaging to the marine eco-system, and to the health of the consumer from mercury poisoning. The ultimate aim of the book is to help consumers around the world make an informed choice as to why it is best to pledge not to eat shark fin soup, and to show that sharks are beautiful, yet much maligned, animals that are critical to the continued health of our planet.
Sharks should therefore not be considered as food.
'Man & Shark', the short film, with the same narrative as the book, with Chinese subtitles is here:-
English version here:-
And that, believe it or not, is the last plug for our hard-hitting book on the global shark fin trade. I promise!
ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA SHARK FIN PHOTOGRAPHER
Click here if you would like to buy a signed copy of our new book about the global shark fin trade.
NB: Proceeds from the sale of 'Man & Shark' go to MyOcean a not-for-profit, non-governmental marine conservation organization registered in Hong Kong, (HK Inland Revenue Department Charity Number: 91/9233).
And here, now that the dust has settled, are a few pix from the book launch last month...
ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA SHARK FIN PHOTOGRAPHER
OK, enough fishy stuff for now.
It's back to business, but you can't pull the wool over my eyes.
Hong Kong Electric organized a press tour to the Lamma (coal-fired) Power Station today, but the coal mountain you see above was not on the official itinerary.
No, today was all about how old Li Ka-shing was supposed to be scoring tons of greenie points. How? By sticking a few solar panels on the roof of his power station on Lamma Island.
Apparently the solar panels can supply 150 Hong Kong families sustainable electricity for a year, and offset 520 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the process. All well and good, I hear you say. You've got to start somewhere. But "0.01% of total output" and "miniscule" were words I kept hearing other journos mutter.
Indeed, today's event did look a lot like lip service. Call me cynical, but I think it was more about style than substance. Like the guy in the white overalls. He was not actually doing anything. He wasn't fixing those panels. He was just there for the photographers benefit.
A possible caption to the above photo could read something like this: "A set up photo contrived by local media shows a Hong Kong Electric (HEC) employee doing nothing in particular at a cheap PR stunt organised by the monopolistic provider of electricity to the captive Hong Kong masses, in order to gain credibility and win over gullible green groups and an even more gullible public, Hong Kong, China, 29 July 2010."
I really hate it when, as a member of the media, you get made to feel used and abused by a big conglomerate. Even when they do have bird poo on their solar panels.
So I took solace in some great light.
In the distance you can see the berths where coal is unloaded from ships.
If you have ever wondered what the inside of Lamma Power Station looks like, this is it. A space to put huge boilers in.
The power station was built in 1980 by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Japan.
I love stuff like this. It's a bit like being in a James Bond film. Or 'The Prisoner'. Or something.
I have no idea what those blue things are, or who this guy is, or what he is doing.
What I do know is they don't make interiors like this any more. Late Seventies, early Eighties, utilitarian chic. Tyler Brûlé, eat your heart out.
So once the cheap solar panel thriller was over, I somehow 'lost' the press pack. And on the way out, I accidentally-on-purposely found my way to the coal storage area.
Once there, I recalled that Hong Kong has the second highest per capita carbon footprint in the world. Coal is coal, filthy as ever. Something that the PR forgot to tell us as we all gawked at their lovely brand new solar panels.
And that, dear reader, has to be my most cynical blog post to date!
ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA PHOTOGRAPHER
HONG KONG - A recent Bloomberg article (22 July 2010), talked of a new “fish” fund by the asset manager Amundi, (a merger of Crédit Agricole’s and Société Générale’s asset management businesses). What a tragedy this is. This is similar to offering a rain forest depletion fund, or a real estate project in a panda wildlife refuge. Why? Because the world’s fish stocks have dwindled, (not “are” dwindling), by enormous amounts in the last 30 years. This comes with the advent of new technologies and capabilities for ocean going vessels and equipment that can sweep clean a section of water the size of small states in a matter of hours. The world does not know what is going on because very few can track the worlds’ fishing fleets, many of which are new to the game and are excited to be able to catch some of what is left, and be able to sell that to the high consumption countries of Asia.
In China, seafood consumption increased by 2kg per person from 2001 to 2007. That might not sound like a lot, but multiply that by 1.3bn, and then remember that global fish resources are already highly under threat. Now blend in the fact that there continues to be a large amount of by-catch for many products which gets wasted, and the fact that fish farming requires a large multiple of small fish, just to feed the fish in the farm to become sellable to the market.
The fund states that as people become richer, they will eat healthier food, and will follow global trends like that of sushi. Sushi is easily one of the worst things that has happened to the planet, yet no one has realized it yet. The industry’s wealthy allure for vendors, and high-status image for consumers, has led bluefin tuna to be an endangered species. No, this is not “official”, because the strong fishing nations of the world blatantly lobbied against “endangered species status” at the recent UN Doha talks.
The planet is 2/3 covered by water, and much of what lives underneath the surface, and how it lives, and survives, is still unknown. The ones who know, are the fisherman, but they only know their own waters, and they know they are becoming devoid of fish. So, they find investors and government subsidies to buy larger boats, and mover farther afield, to wipe new sections of ocean clean. In contrast, one of the good stories for the ocean, and proof that no-take fishing zones work incredibly well to let the ocean rebuild itself, is off of the coast of Somalia. Yes, this is where the pirates are, and they started their activities originally to keep foreign fishing fleets away from their waters, as they did not have boats nearly the size of the ocean going vessels that were raping their waters. Now, these waters are completely free of fishing boats, and the Kenyan fisherman are having some of the best catches in history. We should thank them for showing us this lesson, but is anyone learning and watching?
For those of you out there looking to invest, think seriously about the social sustainability of this fund. You might think the growth trends are there for consumption, but the ocean’s ability to reproduce for all of those hungry consumers is already almost at its limit. The writing is on the wall, and right in their own backyard. Do a Google search on the giant jellyfish in the Japan Sea. Jellyfish are like cockroaches on land, and are the last thing able to survive in the ocean when it is about to die. They are a warning sign that the ocean in some places, is now almost dead, and these creatures are hundreds of pounds in size, “ruining” the fishing industry in that part of the world as they do damage to their nets. This is simply the ocean trying, with one last gasp, to tell us that enough is enough. Unfortunately, the Asian consumers do not even have the information yet to realize that much of what is coming from the sea is now polluted, regardless of where they are being caught. This information is now becoming more understood in the scientific world, but they have simply not been digested yet in the minds of those eating. Likely, they are being digested in other ways.
With the growing trend in socially responsible investing, it is fairly shocking to see a new fund enter into the market that promotes the demise of an already very frail ecosystem. Just because there is growth in consumption and a market does not mean it is sustainable. In fact, it often means the opposite when natural resources are involved, particularly when the consuming population is in the billions.
In a place like the ocean, where so little is still known, investing in this fund would be like investing in companies that offer night hunting in the world’s wildlife reserves.
Co-Founder, Project Kaisei
* * *
The tuna photos above, (bluefin and yellowfin), are out-takes from my Kesen-numa shark fin shoot earlier this month.
ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA JAPAN KESENNUMA BLUEFIN TUNA PHOTOGRAPHER
After four long years, 'Man & Shark' will finally be launched at the Hong Kong Book Fair tomorrow.
So it's been a busy week so far, what with writing press invitations, press releases, making banners, foamboards, media kits etc, on top of answering the non-stop flood of e-mails. And judging by the pre-launch buzz, we are expecting a pretty big media turnout!
Here are the details:-
WHEN: 2PM THURSDAY 22 JULY 2010
WHERE: HONG KONG BOOK FAIR
HK CONVENTION CENTRE,
1 EXPO DRIVE,
We will also be on hand for media interviews after the book signing, at 'Metro Books', 1BA01-11, Hall One, HKCEC.
And the Japan sharks story is still rumbling along in the background too. This time a fantastic slideshow on NetEase/news.163.com, which is China's largest news website. That literally means hundreds of millions of eyeballs in China all looking at the brutal truth behind shark finning.
And I also embedded my 'Japan's Shark Fin Capital' shaky iPhone video onto my Vimeo page.
Getting all geared up for tomorrow. It's going to be a big day.
ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA JAPAN SHARK FIN PHOTOGRAPHER
This is the picture that sparked a global outcry.
KESEN-NUMA CITY, JAPAN - Workers remove tail, dorsal, and pectoral fins from 75 tons of dead blue shark on the dock at an industrial shark finning facility in Kesen-numa City, Miyagi Prefecture, North East Japan, Tuesday, 06 July 2010. According to the most recent data available, a Kesen-numa Municipal Fisheries report, the gross tonnage of blue sharks landed in the small fishing port dropped from 9,722 tons in 2007 to 8,200 tons in 2008 - a decline of 18.6%. Only a small portion of shark fin prepared in Kesen-numa is destined for export, mostly to Hong Kong and Shanghai, where Japanese shark fin is seen as a premium brand by the new wealthy elite of China. The majority of shark fin processed in Kesen-numa is for domestic consumption as shark fin soup at Chinese restaurants and wedding banquets at expensive hotels in Japan. The practice of shark finning is harmful to the environment due to its unsustainability. This is because sharks are being removed from the ocean at a rate faster than they can reproduce, and thus repopulate their numbers. As sharks are apex predators at the top of the food chain, they are naturally predisposed to exist in smaller numbers than their prey and this, combined with their low reproductive rates, makes them naturally vulnerable to over-fishing.
ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA KESEN-NUMA JAPAN SHARK FIN PHOTOGRAPHER
By now, regular visitors to this blog are aware of the daily shark carnage at Kesen-numa City, Japan. Today we leave the dock and go on a tour of the city...
But our journey starts on the dock, where a guy is busy ripping the heart out of a dead salmon shark.
He's is doing that because local folk in Kesen-numa City have a peculiar and bloodthirsty habit.
You see, townsfolk in Kesen-numa enjoy eating salmon shark heart sashimi. Try saying that when you're drunk.
Salmon shark hearts are on sale every day in the Umi-no-Ichi fish market. The fish market is situated underneath the shark museum, next door to the wholesale market. All the action takes place on the same block.
Kesen-numa folk say salmon shark heart sashimi makes them strong.
I had a kind e-mail from Susie Watts yesterday who used to work for WildAid, and was in Kesen-numa a few years back. She said that she was shocked by the sheer amount of low end shark-derived products that she had found on sale in Japan, like the shark jerky pictured above. She mentioned shark fin cat food, but I never saw any.
"One of the things that appalled us in Japan was the availability of "low-end" shark fin products: shark fin cat food, cookies, bread.....instant just-add-water shark fin soup, canned soup.....all that stuff."
I, however, did find some shark fin candies.
Still inside the Umi-no-Ichi fish market, all kinds of different shark fin products are on sale, but the most popular by far is shark fin soup.
Abecho, a big fisheries/tourism conglomerate in Kesen-numa, have girls in the market giving away free samples in disposable plastic cups.
A visit to the Abecho website is worth it just to have a laugh at the double speak on their site.
I love their ironic company motto, "Living with the ocean". It makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.
Shark fin soup at 9am, anybody?
Or perhaps you would like to purchase your very own shark fin to boil up at home?
On a nearby table I found a framed photo of a secret place outside Kesen-numa where they dry the fins in winter. A trader told me it was in the mountains, but I can spy a bit of sea in that photo.
In the summer months Kesen-numa is too hot and humid, so they dry the fins in a warehouse. I am only guessing here, but I think they use giant dehumidifiers. Asking around, other shark fin buyers told me that some fins are sent to China to be dried, but he said the exact location is an extremely well-guarded secret. Much as I pushed, I got absolutely nowhere in my enquiries as to exactly where in China they do the drying. The closest I got was one trader who told me that it was "somewhere near Shanghai". If any readers of this blog in China know where the place is, please drop me a line!
A quick walk around the town, reveals a parallel universe, where even the most basic concepts of marine conservation and environmental protection do not exist.
Adapting slightly from Monday's blog post, just a stone's throw from the dock, is the 'Kesen-numa Rias Shark Museum', which visitors enter through a giant set of shark jaws.
The place is quite interesting, in a very quirky Japanese kind of way. Once inside, tourists are first confronted by real copies of faded front pages of tabloid newspapers from around the world that sensationalize shark attacks on swimmers.
Make no mistake, sharks are bad, evil, a threat to humanity and they should be erdaicated from the face of the earth, the headlines, and so it seems the museum's message screams at us. This despite the fact that humans are statistically far more likely to die from crossing the road, than from an attack by a shark.
So as if to allay all the alarmist fear one is first assaulted with, traumatised vistors to the museum can calm down by petting a cute and cuddly cat shark. At least these Kesen-numa sharks are sake from the knife. By the way, that's my translator in nearly every museum shot so far, as the place was quite empty at 10am on a Tuesday morning!
When you get bored of petting the cute and cuddly cat shark, you can have your photo taken next to a big set of great white shark teeth. And after passing a few more exhibits relating to the natural history of sharks, visitors leaving the museum are forced to pass a glass display box filled with all kinds of shark-derived products.
Shark fin soup in a can, shark cartillage pills which are supposedly good for joint pain, and hand-crafted handbags made from shark leather. But strangely not a word about marine conservation and the critical situation facing global shark stocks due to over-fishing.
Instead of all that environmental rubbish, how about some nice wall-mounted photos (left) detailing the best way to slice up a whale shark in order to get at all those big yummy gill rakers?
And here are some pictures of other peoples photos mounted on giant light boxes in the museum, first up a Kesen-numa City aerial shot.
More fins drying, closely cropped to obscure any recognizable landmarks that could give up a potential clue as to the exact location of the drying compound.
Different Japanese cooking styles of shark fin.
A plastic display bowl of shark fin soup next to a real shark fin, at the restaurant by the museum exit.
Here's a close up of the dock where it all happens.
In the afternoon I went to a shark fin processor factory. The fins, when they are all cleaned up actually look very beautiful.
They have a mother of pearl kind of sheen to them when they are soaked in water.
Once dried, the workers sift through the fins. This could be almost be a photo from Sheung Wan district in Hong Kong - except for the protective hair nets.
I couldn't get a better angle than this. I was not allowed past the doorway.
Interesting diagram on the wall, detailing technical shark fin production stuff in Japanese.
The product lines are very heavily reliant on Chinese-style graphic design. At centre, big industrial catering sized tins of Golden Dragon Brand for hotel and restaurant use only.
In the evening I made sure I found someone Japanese actually eating it.
He had nearly finished it, by the time the necessary permissions were granted to shoot in the restsurant. In Japan, you can't just 'gun it and run it' like you can in China.
Here's a sushi chef in the same restaurant preparing some bonito, another Kesen-numa speciality. Not sure about the sustainability issues here. You would have to ask Casson Trenor.
On the way out of town, I passed this happy smiling blue shark (Prionace glauca) painted on the road.
Kesen-numa is indeed a very strange place. Even after leaving, two and a half hours down the road, you still can't get away from the stuff.
Here it is for sale at the airport in Sendai.
Kesen-numa Part III will be up in a few days...
At this point I would like to thank Tre and Mayumi at Pangeaseed, a small Tokyo NGO for all the invaluable advice they gave me prior to my trip to Japan's Shark Fin Capital. These guys are awesome, and they form part of a semi-underground, grass roots, community-based, collective of artists, designers, photographers and musicians. Their message, (courtesy of the entertaining slideshow on their site), is very plain and simple...
ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA SHARK FIN KESENNUMA JAPAN PHOTOGRAPHER
See this slide show to see what happens when modern manufacturing processes and shark finning collide.
No time or patience to sit through an entire slide show on industrial shark-finning, (which has ambient audio, image captions and full screen capabilty)? Here's a selection of the best photos from Kesen-numa City, Japan.
And here's a YouTube video of the industrial shark finning in Kesen-numa City that I shot with my iPhone.
KESEN-NUMA CITY, JAPAN - It's 5am on the the north eastern tip of Japan's main island of Honshu, and 75 tons of dead shark is being meticulously arranged into a neat grid of tidy piles, of twenty sharks per pile.
If you thought shark finning was exclusively a Chinese problem, think again. Welcome to Kesen-numa City, Japan's shark fin capital.
Here, six days a week, small teams of Japanese workers go about the hushed business of industrial shark-finning.
By 6.30am, with piles arranged, the sharks are disemboweled first. Hearts are ripped efficiently from their bodies by men wearing brightly coloured rubber boots and aprons. At 7am, the shark corpses are cleaned of their blood by workers wielding water hoses. And by 8am, small teams are silently moving up and down aisles and rows like robots in a Japanese car factory, quickly slicing off every dorsal, pectoral and tail fin from the lifeless, grey lumps. Big hungry black crows squawk in the shadows, looking for bloody morsels. And shark fins plop with regularity into small yellow plastic baskets. The baskets fill up fast, are then weighed, and finally carried to a nearby truck, where a man with a notepad strikes a deal. At 9.30am, it's all over for another day. Fork lift trucks scoop up tons of limbless carcasses, then dump them into a high-sided truck. The process is a brutal sight to behold, and not for the faint-hearted.
The fishing port of Kesen-numa City is located in Miyagi Prefecture in North East Japan, and is the country's only port dedicated to catching sharks.
Over two days in early July 2010, I saw 119 tons of blue shark (Prionace glaucaof), ten tons of salmon shark (Lamna ditropis), and three tons of short fin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus) landed on the dock at Kesen-numa. Not to mention several tons of endangered bluefin tuna, (Thunnus thynnus), but that's a whole other story. Taking government transparency to another level, landed shark tonnage numbers are provided daily by the port of Kesen-numa's Japanese only website, which is publicly, (and apparently unashamedly), available. According to the most recent data available, a Kesen-numa Municipal Fisheries report, the gross tonnage of blue sharks landed in the small fishing port dropped from 9,722 tons in 2007 to 8,200 tons in 2008, a decline of 18.6%.
Only a small portion of shark fin prepared in Kesen-numa is destined for export, mostly to Hong Kong and Shanghai, where Japanese shark fin is seen as a premium brand by the new wealthy elite of China. For wealthy Chinese, shark fin from Kesen-numa is seen as a premium, or luxury, brand. Mr Hatakeyama, 45, a shark fin processor from Kesen-numa, said, "Quite a bit of shark fin is sent to Shanghai from here as there are many rich people there. Our shark fin here can command higher prices than Chinese shark fin sourced from elsewhere in Asia, the Middle East or Africa. Even though the Chinese have their own shark fin, they prefer Japanese brands".
Given the delicacy's roots, this is hardly surprising, but what is more unexpected is that the majority of shark fin processed in Kesen-numa is for domestic consumption as shark fin soup at Chinese restaurants and expensive hotels in Japan. Like in China, shark fin soup is common place at weddings, company banquets and all sorts of other special occasions where the paying host wants to show off their wealth. And much of the shark fin produced at small food factories dotted around the city ends up bound for Chinese restaurants in Japan, of which there are many. The rest is sold to hotels to include on their menus for newly weds and for corporate banquets.
In olden times, shark fin was sometimes used as a substitute for gold when Japanese merchants traded with China. Understandably, and for this same reason, the exact location for fin drying in Japan remains a closely guarded secret. And a significant amount is shipped to China for sun-drying, although the exact drying location in China is an even bigger secret.
These days, the port of Kesen-numa feels like a town down on it's luck. Once thriving, today there is a sense of decay in the air. Overgrown and rusty. Similarly, attitudes have yet to move with the times. As public sentiment slowly turns against shark fin soup in Hong Kong, what was once an ancient tradition in this forgotten corner of Japan, is, according to conservationists, wreaking havoc on shark populations worldwide. Small fishing boats used catch sharks as part of the city's ancient tradition.
But this tradition, coupled with modern fishing methods like the advent of strong and long fishing lines, and boats that can go further and stay out of port for longer, is a recipe for disaster for the sharks. According to the Japan Fisheries Agency, the nation's national shark fin catch nearly halved since the late 1960's. In 1969, the total number of sharks caught and landed in Japan was around 65,000 tons. Last year's total was around 35,000 tons, and Kesen-numa accounts for around 90% of all sharks caught nationally.
Whether the global marine ecosystems can suffer such an onslaught is debatable. The arguments against shark-finning are, by now, well known in Hong Kong. It is said that sharks take decades to reach adulthood, and by ripping them out of the oceans at such an unprecedented rate, we are depriving them of them of the chance to reproduce, and thus repopulate their decimated numbers. As sharks are apex predators at the top of the food chain, they are naturally predisposed to exist in smaller numbers than their prey and this, combined with their low reproductive rates, makes them naturally vulnerable to over-fishing. Cruelty may be the issue at stake for those who see the wasteful practice of slicing the fins off the shark at sea and tossing them back over the side of the boat, but in Kesen-numa the whole shark is landed. It is said that every part of every shark landed at Kesen-numa is processed there and then consumed. Even it's heart. For the people of Kesen-numa are seen as a little strange by ordinary Japanese. Locals can ill afford the shark fin soup available at many of the town's small side street restaurants, but the locals have developed a peculiar, if bloodthirsty, fondness for raw salmon shark heart sashimi. An exotic 'delicacy', which, according to local people, is consumed nowhere else in Japan. It is left up to the tourists who visit Kesen-numa to order the city's famous speciality, shark fin soup.
And tourists do come. Some are attracted to the splendid hiking along Miyagi Prefecture's rugged coastline, whilst others are seafood aficionados, looking for their next hit of sublime ultra-fresh exotic seafood. Early risers among them will inevitably make their way to the dock, where they are confronted with one of the most bloody spectacles they are likely ever to witness in their lives - Kesen-numa's very own industrial shark-finning show.
A quick walk around the town, reveals a parallel universe, where even the most basic concepts of marine conservation do not exist. Just a stone's throw from the dock, is the 'Kesen-numa Rias Shark Museum', which visitors enter through a giant set of shark jaws. Once inside, tourists are first confronted by real copies of faded front pages of tabloid newspapers from around the world that sensationalize shark attacks on swimmers. Make no mistake, sharks are bad, evil, a threat to humanity and they should be erdaicated from the face of the earth, the headlines, and so it seems the museum's message screams at us. This despite the fact that humans are statistically far more likely to die from crossing the road, than from an attack by a shark. After passing exhibits relating to the natural history of sharks at the half way mark, visitors leaving the museum pass a glass display box filled with all kinds of products one can make from shark; shark fin soup in a can, shark cartillage pills which are supposedly good for joint pain, and hand-crafted handbags made from shark leather. But not a word about conservation and the critical situation facing global shark stocks due to over-fishing.
Could a new battle between marine conservationists battling to save the sharks and the Japanese fishing lobby be on the horizon? First there was the annual showdown in the Southern Ocean between the Japanese whaling fleet and the environmental groups Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd to save the whale. Then there was the runaway success of the Oscar-winning documentary 'The Cove' which exposed the brutal Japanese trade in captive dolphins. One would think the tide is slowly turning.
Isn't it time Kesen-numa City, Japan's dirty little shark secret, was shut down too?
ALEX HOFFORD : HONG KONG CHINA KESENNUMA JAPAN SHARK FIN PHOTOGRAPHER