In 2015, a group of NGOs and wildlife experts joined forces to establish the Hong Kong Wildlife Trade Working Group and together fight the illegal trafficking of wildlife and animal products through Hong Kong. We met six members of the group, including Yvonne Sadovy, a professor in the University of Hong Kong’s School of Biological Sciences and a global expert in the trade of live reef fish, to learn more about the criminal trade and how it can be stopped. Here, Sadovy discusses the illegal trade of live reef fish into and through Hong Kong.
How did you first get involved in fighting wildlife crime? I’ve been in Hong Kong for almost 25 years now. I came from Puerto Rico and I’ve been working on groupers, which is a type of reef rish. When I came to Hong Kong, one of many reasons for coming here was there wasn’t much knowledge about fish or seafood despite the importance of it in the region.
I remember going around the tanks in Hong Kong—in Lei Yue Mun, Tuen Mun, Sai Kung—and I kept seeing these animals I hadn’t seen before. They were groupers but I didn’t know the species. When I started looking them up, I realised that some were coming from the other side of the planet, like the Seychelles, for example. They’re endemic, which means they only occur there. It was a real eye opener that fish were coming from so far to the Hong Kong market.
I remember being very surprised because at that time, the prices weren’t very high. It piqued my interest to find out how this trade is actually being run.
Which species are really at risk today? For the live fish trade, most of them are groupers. In terms of particular species, there’s the camouflage grouper, the leopard coral grouper and the square-tailed coral grouper. These are all important because they’re a good size, they’re considered to have very good flesh and they’re not produced by farming. There is no alternative source.
One other fish I focus on is the Napoleon fish. Groupers and the Napoleon fish tend to live quite a long time, so they take many years to become sexually mature. That’s one of the problems with overfishing—a lot of the time they’re taken before they’ve even had time to reproduce and replenish the population.
How many of these fish that are shipped into Hong Kong are eaten here, and how many are re-exported somewhere else? I would say probably at least 50% of the fish coming into Hong Kong go to Mainland China. It’s species dependent as well, so I think the higher value species and individuals tend to be sold on the Mainland.
How are these fish smuggled into Hong Kong? When they’re brought in by ship, there are two points of illegality. There are cargo vessels that are registered here in Hong Kong that pick up live fish in Indonesia and bring them here. In Indonesia, they are only supposed to pick up cultured farmed fish but they often pick up wild uncultured fish, which is illegal in Indonesia.
The second issue is that some of these vessels come into Hong Kong and don't report [the fish] to Customs and Excise in Hong Kong. That is is unmanifested cargo, which can result in a very costly fine. Sometimes they don’t report CITES listed fish, like the Napoleon Wrasse, to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.
When they’re transported by air, they pack a carton labelled “live grouper” but they’ll add Napoleon fish so the cargo will go as a mixed species shipment rather than a CITES-listed fish, which has to be shipped separately.
What projects do you have in the works to tackle this trade? If you look at the face of a Napoleon fish, it has the most beautiful markings and they’re like fingerprints—you can distinguish different fish from each other from the markings. One of the problems we have is restaurants laundering fish—a restaurant may have a license to sell one, so they only keep one in their tanks but they actually sell several.
If you’re a law enforcement officer walking past every day, you’re not going to notice that it’s a different fish. We're working on an app where you take a picture once, it’s in the database, you go back and take another picture and it tells you whether it’s the same fish or not. This could really help us.
Other activists have discussed the importance of moving wildlife crime to schedule one of the Organised and Serious Crime Ordinance (OSCO). Why is that important? It’s important to have the wildlife trade taken much more seriously as a crime. We’ve increased the penalties, but increasing the penalties is not enough if those penalties aren’t applied. Hong Kong and Mainland China in particular benefit enormously from these trades, so it is in our interest to do it right.
It gives us a very bad reputation to be seen to be a centre. I think to some extent Hong Kong has been in denial as to how important we are as a wildlife trading centre. I think that’s improving, but we play such a major role that we have to throw a lot more firepower at it. Just do the decent thing, I would say.