Air China becomes first mainland airline to ban transport of shark fin

Though no timeline has been given for the ban, Air China's announcement strikes another blow to the controversial trade.

Shark fins
3,500 shark fins, a tiny percentage of the estimated 30 to 73 million sharks killed every year to supply the global shark fin industry. Image: Wise Oceans

Air China Cargo has become the first mainland China airline to ban the transport of shark fin.

The airline said in a statement on Friday posted on its website that the move is part of a drive to meet its sustainable development goals, and in line with demand from stakeholders for more ethical sourcing practices.

No specific timeline has been given for phasing out the cargo of the controversial dish, which remains widely consumed across China although its popularity has waned as consumers have started to turn against it on ethical grounds.

“We understand the community’s desire to promote responsible and sustainable marine sourcing practices, and this remains important to Air China Cargo’s overall sustainable development goals,” the airline said in the statement.

Of the estimated 73 million sharks killed every year, most are thrown back into the water alive, after their fins have been removed. This practice is decreasingly acceptable to Chinese consumers. 

Airlines, shipping companies and hotel chains have come under mounting pressure to stop transporting or selling shark fin. Air China’s news comes six months after HK Express became the first carrier from Hong Kong - the global centre for the shark fin trade - to ban the cargo.

HK Express joined a coalition of 35 airlines, which include British Airways, American Airlines, Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Emirates, to do the same.

Pressure against the trade has meant that demand for shark fin has dwindled. In Hong Kong, shark fin imports dropped by 42 per cent between 2010 and 2015 to 5,717 tonnes. There was also a 72 per cent drop in imports by air to 450 tonnes over the same time period. On the mainland, shark fin imports have declined by 82 per cent between 2012 and 2015.

Air China’s move was welcomed by wildlife charity WildAid, whose campaigner Alex Hofford applauded the company for taking an “ethical stance” to preserve shark populations.

The NGO said that it would now to targeting more of China’s airlines over their shark fin policy, including China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, Beijing Capital Airlines, Hainan Airlines, Xiamen Air, Tianjin Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, Shandong Airlines, Shanghai Airlines and SF Airlines.

In April last year in Hong Kong, WildAid launched a graphic advertising campaign that attacked the tradition of serving sharks fin at weddings. The video featured a couple hacking off the fins of a live shark and tossing it back into the ocean.

The success in curbing the popularity of shark fin in China has been attributed to a nationwide campaign featuring basketball player Yao Ming, and the banning of the dish at state banquets as part of government austerity measures.

WildAid said in a statement about Air China’s news that full enforcement by airlines would be vital to the success of any ban. Companies should stringently check that shark fin cargo is not being simply mislabeled as “seafood”, “dried seafood” or “dried marine products” when shipped, the NGO noted.

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