On April 24th, 2019 OceansAsia discovered during its on the ground investigations in Hong Kong a 40ft refrigerated container full of sacks of shark fins and fish maw originating from Nicaragua on NYK Shipping Lines vessel ‘Laura’ and then transhipped in Manzanillo Mexico onto the MSC vessel ‘Natasha’ to Hong Kong.

Upon contacting NYK operated by O.N.E (Ocean Network Express) they confirmed that the shipment was mis-declared and labelled as ‘fish product’ against their No Shark Fin Carriage’ policy and that they were unaware the container contained shark fins.

When OceansAsia notified MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company) the world’s 2nd largest shipping company, we received a reply from their Regional General Manager for Trade, Corporate Account and Documentation based in Singapore. During several phone call and emails, she stated that to her knowledge “MSC does still carry some fins.” When asked to clarify, the matter was then directed to Mr Giles Broom, Global PR & Internal Communications Manager at the companies head office in Geneva. In a phone call on June 7th 2019, Mr Broom questioned the wording of the MSC statement on the website and asked if we believed that “would also include shark meat?” Mr Broom made it clear that he was not with MSC when the policy was written in 2016.

The statement on MSC’s website is very clear;

“MSC’s continued support for the preservation of marine wildlife with immediate ban on shark fin consignments.

As part of MSC’s ongoing commitment to preserving the marine environment, the company has placed an embargo on any consignment containing shark fins or other shark-related products, with immediate effect. The World Wildlife Fund has informed us that consumption of shark-related products, which are a culinary delicacy in some countries, is threatening an already endangered species. To this end, they have appealed to all sea and air freight companies to ban all shipments immediately.”

Source: MSC Website January 21, 2016

After announcing their pledge online in 2016, MSC received instant backlash from Spanish Longline Associations regarding stopping their shipments of shark meat.

On the 3rd November 2017, MSC reinforced their stance on combatting the illegal wildlife trade by signing the Buckingham Palace Agreement. Mr Diego Aponte, President and CEO of MSC discussed the importance of businesses playing a sustainable and ethical role in society with The Duke of Cambridge, President of United for Wildlife, and Lord William Hague, Chairman of the United for Wildlife Transport Taskforce, at a ceremony in London.

Mr Diego Aponte, President and CEO of MSC signing the Buckingham Palace Agreement, 3rd Nov, 2017

“Sharks are facing a global threat from over exploitation, largely by illegal fishing, driven by the demand for shark fins for shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy. Whilst we welcome the positive stance taken by the global shipping industry in placing complete embargoes on shark fin and shark products, if this is not being adherred to, the signatures on these agreements are meaningless” states Gary Stokes, Director of OceansAsia.

On June 22nd MSC replied to OceansAsia’s request to clarify their stance and to whether they will continue to honor the embargo and public pledge. In an email, Mr Bloom stated that they have made a “factual correction” to the 2016 statement by adding the word “endangered” into the wording, meaning that they DO now carry shark products, just not from endangered species.

“The reason that blanket bans are put into effect on shark fins and shark products is because it’s almost impossible to distinguish the species and origin without comprehensive DNA testing”, said Dr Teale Phelps Bondaroff, Director of Research at OceansAsia. MSC has not clarified how they will ensure that endangered or illegally caught sharks will not be carried on their vessels.

“MSC’s change of stance to their shark carriage comes as a shock, and we consider it a downgrade. When we discovered their competitor Maersk had fins smuggled on their vessels in 2016, their reaction was very positive. Maersk instantly stepped up their checks, tightened their booking procedures and added the traders to a blacklist as well as publicly joining forces with the NGO’s to show a united stand against wildlife crime. MSC have done the complete opposite by rewarded those who wish to carry out wildlife smuggling by opening up the possibility to ship illegal/protected species mixed in with legally caught sharks. It would appear evident to me that despite their 2016 public stance to not carry, MSC have been knowingly shipping shark fins and shark meat all along, in the hope that no one would catch them!” said Gary Stokes.

Combating wildlife crime in the shipping industry is a huge challenge and something that we understand and appreciate. The first step is placing embargoes on species that are threatened with extinction, the next step is enforcement. Without a solid embargo in place, there can be no possibility for enforcement.

At present containers are rarely inspected, with less than 1% at present being checked on arrival at a port of entry. The larger shippers also have agreements in place to help speed up their clearance in and out of ports, one of these is the CTPAT (Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism) in the US which rewards big shipping companies such as MSC by considering them as low risk shippers. Nothing can be further from the truth. Smugglers are clearly using these larger shipping companies whom by scale of the volume they ship, cannot check what they are carrying onboard their vessels. Evidence of this is very clear with the recent drug bust in Philadephia of an MSC vessel found carrying 17.5 tons of cocaine destined for Europe, the largest drug bust in US history valued at over a billion US dollars.

MSC and other shippers, governments and customs entities need to overhaul these broken systems so that they do know what they are carrying onboard their vessels. At present the almighty trade dollar far outweighs any stringent checks that might slow down the flow of trade, or divert trade to other ports.

If governments are actually serious about combating wildlife crime, then an overhaul of the container shipping systems needs to happen in the very near future.