The issue of the world uncontrolled trade in shark's fin has been reopened amid claims by some green groups that some shark populations have been reduced by as much as 90%.

Food retailers and restaurant owners, who can demand between $300 and $400 for a bowl of shark fin soup, insist that the claims are exaggerated however, and argue that the government should not give in to environmental groups by placing controls on the industry.

There is considerable demand for shark's fin in Hong Kong, where it sells for about $3,000 a catty, according to the Shark Fin Trade Merchants' Association.

"For now the demand is there, the supply is there, and that's the economy," said Lee Kwong-lam, chairman of the Hong Kong Food Trades Association. "It's not a good idea for government to interfere with the business sector. The shark's fin trade in Hong Kong is a free trade."
 
The extent of that free trade is what concerns international conservation groups WildAid and EarthCare. The groups have recently published a new report on the issue entitled the "End of the Line," which states that up to 800,000 tonnes of shark catches go unreported as traders hope to increase profits by avoiding taxes and duty.

"Hong Kong is the centre of the world shark's fin business. There are no controls whatsoever on the source of these fins," said the groups in a joint statement.

According to the report, trade in fins has increased dramatically and figures from the Census and Statistics Department point to the value of the trade doubling over the past two years, from $1.58bn in 1998 to $2.5bn in 2000.

The groups argue that the government needs to support methods of shark conservation and educate the public about the negative aspects of the industry. They have also called for a complete ban on the practise of shark finning, where sharks' fins are removed and then the bodies are returned to the sea.

"Only a handful of countries have any controls and no meaningful international regulation exists for shark fisheries," said the report, which also calls for all shark-fishing nations to introduce controls to maintain sustainable populations.

The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation revealed that it is responding to the report by drafting amendments to the Protection of Endangered Species Ordinance. This will now include the basking shark, listed as protected fauna. Full details of the waste, poaching and over-fishing in the shark fin trade in Hong Kong have been collated after a two year investigation. The results of this will be released tomorrow.