Among the fins were those of whale sharks and possibly oceanic whitetip sharks - both protected CITES Appendix 2 species - say the environmental activists.

The fins arrived on a Singapore Airlines flight, even though the airline is one of a number to have banned carriage of shark fins on all its routes.

According to Gary Stokes, Asia Director for Sea Shepherd Global, it had been deceived into thinking the shipment innocent because it was labelled “Dried Seafood”,

A three-month investigation in Hong Kong last year revealed shark-fin shipments through Maersk, Virgin Australia Cargo and Cathay Pacific with similarly vague labelling.

Sea Shepherd says that such descriptions are designed not only to get round carriers’ bans on shark-fin but to hoodwink what it says is “an already over-stretched Hong Kong Customs that can barely check 1% of all containers arriving”.

Currently the contents of shipped containers do not have to be declared to the Hong Kong authorities until 14 days after their arrival, by which time the shipment has already been dispersed, so Sea Shepherd Global has asked the Hong Kong government for mandatory use at the time of booking of international Harmonised Shipping Codes for all wildlife products.

Those who ship the fins “should no longer be called shark-fin traders but shark-fin smugglers, which is exactly what they are, and they should be dealt with as smugglers, instead of being pampered in fear of upsetting livelihoods; they are criminals,” said Stokes.

“AFCD [(Agricultural, Fisheries & Conservation Department] officers need to be given the power to enter, search and prosecute, yet they either do not have the powers or they lack the initiative and incentive to do so.”

Hong Kong Customs has had some success since Sea Shepherd’s intervention, however, with the announcement of the seizure of some 220kg of dried shark-fin and 140kg of dried seahorses seized from a container shipped from Indonesia, Hong Kong Customs said.

Valued at US $420,000, the illegal cargo was found on 4 June in a 6m container labelled as  containing “Fish Maw”.

A man and woman, directors of a dried seafood shop, were subsequently arrested and released on bail.

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