Japan's Shark Fin Capital, Kesen-numa City

See this slide show to see what happens when modern manufacturing processes and shark finning collide.

No time or patience to sit through an entire slide show on industrial shark-finning, (which has ambient audio, image captions and full screen capabilty)? Here's a selection of the best photos from Kesen-numa City, Japan.


And here's a YouTube video of the industrial shark finning in Kesen-numa City that I shot with my iPhone.

KESEN-NUMA CITY, JAPAN - It's 5am on the the north eastern tip of Japan's main island of Honshu, and 75 tons of dead shark is being meticulously arranged into a neat grid of tidy piles, of twenty sharks per pile.


If you thought shark finning was exclusively a Chinese problem, think again. Welcome to Kesen-numa City, Japan's shark fin capital.


Here, six days a week, small teams of Japanese workers go about the hushed business of industrial shark-finning.


By 6.30am, with piles arranged, the sharks are disemboweled first. Hearts are ripped efficiently from their bodies by men wearing brightly coloured rubber boots and aprons. At 7am, the shark corpses are cleaned of their blood by workers wielding water hoses. And by 8am, small teams are silently moving up and down aisles and rows like robots in a Japanese car factory, quickly slicing off every dorsal, pectoral and tail fin from the lifeless, grey lumps. Big hungry black crows squawk in the shadows, looking for bloody morsels. And shark fins plop with regularity into small yellow plastic baskets. The baskets fill up fast, are then weighed, and finally carried to a nearby truck, where a man with a notepad strikes a deal. At 9.30am, it's all over for another day. Fork lift trucks scoop up tons of limbless carcasses, then dump them into a high-sided truck. The process is a brutal sight to behold, and not for the faint-hearted.


The fishing port of Kesen-numa City is located in Miyagi Prefecture in North East Japan, and is the country's only port dedicated to catching sharks.


Over two days in early July 2010, I saw 119 tons of blue shark (Prionace glaucaof), ten tons of salmon shark (Lamna ditropis), and three tons of short fin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus)  landed on the dock at Kesen-numa. Not to mention several tons of endangered bluefin tuna, (Thunnus thynnus), but that's a whole other story. Taking government transparency to another level, landed shark tonnage numbers are provided daily by the port of Kesen-numa's Japanese only website, which is publicly, (and apparently unashamedly), available. According to the most recent data available, a Kesen-numa Municipal Fisheries report, the gross tonnage of blue sharks landed in the small fishing port dropped from 9,722 tons in 2007 to 8,200 tons in 2008, a decline of 18.6%.


Only a small portion of shark fin prepared in Kesen-numa is destined for export, mostly to Hong Kong and Shanghai, where Japanese shark fin is seen as a premium brand by the new wealthy elite of China. For wealthy Chinese, shark fin from Kesen-numa is seen as a premium, or luxury, brand. Mr Hatakeyama, 45, a shark fin processor from Kesen-numa, said, "Quite a bit of shark fin is sent to Shanghai from here as there are many rich people there. Our shark fin here can command higher prices than Chinese shark fin sourced from elsewhere in Asia, the Middle East or Africa. Even though the Chinese have their own shark fin, they prefer Japanese brands".


Given the delicacy's roots, this is hardly surprising, but what is more unexpected is that the majority of shark fin processed in Kesen-numa is for domestic consumption as shark fin soup at Chinese restaurants and expensive hotels in Japan. Like in China, shark fin soup is common place at weddings, company banquets and all sorts of other special occasions where the paying host wants to show off their wealth. And much of the shark fin produced at small food factories dotted around the city ends up bound for Chinese restaurants in Japan, of which there are many. The rest is sold to hotels to include on their menus for newly weds and for corporate banquets.


In olden times, shark fin was sometimes used as a substitute for gold when Japanese merchants traded with China. Understandably, and for this same reason, the exact location for fin drying in Japan remains a closely guarded secret. And a significant amount is shipped to China for sun-drying, although the exact drying location in China is an even bigger secret.


These days, the port of Kesen-numa feels like a town down on it's luck. Once thriving, today there is a sense of decay in the air. Overgrown and rusty. Similarly, attitudes have yet to move with the times. As public sentiment slowly turns against shark fin soup in Hong Kong, what was once an ancient tradition in this forgotten corner of Japan, is, according to conservationists, wreaking havoc on shark populations worldwide. Small fishing boats used catch sharks as part of the city's ancient tradition.


But this tradition, coupled with modern fishing methods like the advent of strong  and long fishing lines, and boats that can go further and stay out of port for longer, is a recipe for disaster for the sharks. According to the Japan Fisheries Agency, the nation's national shark fin catch nearly halved since the late 1960's. In 1969, the total number of sharks caught and landed in Japan was around 65,000 tons. Last year's total was around 35,000 tons, and Kesen-numa accounts for around 90% of all sharks caught nationally.


Whether the global marine ecosystems can suffer such an onslaught is debatable. The arguments against shark-finning are, by now, well known in Hong Kong. It is said that sharks take decades to reach adulthood, and by ripping them out of the oceans at such an unprecedented rate, we are depriving them of them of the chance to reproduce, and thus repopulate their decimated numbers. As sharks are apex predators at the top of the food chain, they are naturally predisposed to exist in smaller numbers than their prey and this, combined with their low reproductive rates, makes them naturally vulnerable to over-fishing.  Cruelty may be the issue at stake for those who see the wasteful practice of slicing the fins off the shark at sea and tossing them back over the side of the boat, but in Kesen-numa the whole shark is landed. It is said that every part of every shark landed at Kesen-numa is processed there and then consumed. Even it's heart. For the people of Kesen-numa are seen as a little strange by ordinary Japanese. Locals can ill afford the shark fin soup available at many of the town's small side street restaurants, but the locals have developed a peculiar, if bloodthirsty, fondness for raw salmon shark heart sashimi. An exotic 'delicacy', which, according to local people, is consumed nowhere else in Japan. It is left up to the tourists who visit Kesen-numa to order the city's famous speciality, shark fin soup.


And tourists do come. Some are attracted to the splendid hiking along Miyagi Prefecture's rugged coastline, whilst others are seafood aficionados, looking for their next hit of sublime ultra-fresh exotic seafood. Early risers among them will inevitably make their way to the dock, where they are confronted with one of the most bloody spectacles they are likely ever to witness in their lives - Kesen-numa's very own industrial shark-finning show.


A quick walk around the town, reveals a parallel universe, where even the most basic concepts of marine conservation do not exist. Just a stone's throw from the dock, is the 'Kesen-numa Rias Shark Museum',  which visitors enter through a giant set of shark jaws. Once inside, tourists are first confronted by real copies of faded front pages of tabloid newspapers from around the world that sensationalize shark attacks on swimmers. Make no mistake, sharks are bad, evil, a threat to humanity and they should be erdaicated from the face of the earth, the headlines, and so it seems the museum's message screams at us. This despite the fact that humans are statistically far more likely to die from crossing the road, than from an attack by a shark. After passing exhibits relating to the natural history of sharks at the half way mark, visitors leaving the museum pass a glass display box filled with all kinds of products one can make from shark; shark fin soup in a can, shark cartillage pills which are supposedly good for joint pain, and hand-crafted handbags made from shark leather. But not a word about conservation and the critical situation facing global shark stocks due to over-fishing.


Could a new battle between marine conservationists battling to save the sharks and the Japanese fishing lobby be on the horizon? First there was the annual showdown in the Southern Ocean between the Japanese whaling fleet and the environmental groups Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd to save the whale. Then there was the runaway success of the Oscar-winning documentary 'The Cove' which exposed the brutal Japanese trade in captive dolphins. One would think the tide is slowly turning.


Isn't it time Kesen-numa City, Japan's dirty little shark secret, was shut down too?



Air Pollution Portraits, Hong Kong

The following Hong Kong people are wearing a gas mask to protest the high levels of roadside air pollution in the city.

- School girl, Causeway Bay.

- Bus stop girl, Causeway Bay.

- Street sweeper, Causeway Bay.

- 'Beat the tiger' porpor, Causeway Bay.

- Construction worker, Wan Chai.

- Newspaper vendor, Wan Chai.

- Newspaper vendor, Wan Chai.

Despite the clean southwesterly blowing right now, down in the canyons of Wan Chai and Causeway Bay the air is as filthy as ever.

These photos are part of a larger set that I took today for the Hong Kong Clean Air Network.


The Hong Kong-Shenzhen Border Area: As Seen From The Air...

Yesterday I did a chopper shoot for a corporate client.

At one stage I flew eastwards along the dotted line of the helicopter GPS, between Hong Kong and Chinese airspaces.

In the background of the above image, the sprawling metropolis of Shenzhen. And in the foreground, on this side of the Shenzhen River, the rural northern New Territories of Hong Kong.

At the centre of this image, in between the two hills, can be seen the Lo Wu border crossing. You can spot the MTR railway track snaking up to it along the river from the right.

And where's this? Up the Amazon?

The Congo River? No, it's the Mai Po Marshes WWF bird sanctuary.

And here's the Shenzhen Bay Bridge, complete with oyster farms in the foreground. Shenzhen on the left, Hong Kong on the right.

On the whole, the weather was great. A blue sky, with fluffy white clouds, and a nice clean south westerly wind blowing in off the sea. No pollution at all.

All these photos were shot in RAW, a third of a stop under, with a polarizer and a very, very, clean CMOS. No Photoshop necessary!


Workers In China Seek Better Conditions, More Pay...

Factory workers in Foshan, China, want a pay hike.

The question is, will the recent wave of suicides at Foxconn, and the strikes at Honda and Toyota spread to other factories in China? Is the Chinese economy about to be hit where it hurts? And, not wishing to be too esoteric here, but aren't the unions in China supposed to be on the side of the workers?


Final Musings From Pattaya, Thailand...

Everyone knows Pattaya is famous for this...

A lesser known side to the seedy city is 'Boyz Town'...

It's not only girls from Isan (อีสาน), the poor region in North East Thailand, that come to Pattaya to work in the sex tourism industry. Young 'boyz' sell themselves to gay sex tourists here too.

The city is also a place where children are placed at great risk. At around 1am on Saturday, I saw this prostitute along 'Walking Street', the main strip of go-go bars in Pattaya. She was holding a one month old baby. The noise coming from the surrounding bars and discos was deafening. I indicated to her through basic sign language, (covering my ears and pointing at the newborn), that the music might not be so good for the baby, but all she did was throw me back a blank hollow look. The problem was I didn't know how to shout to her in Thai some unsolicited medical advice along the lines of "Prolonged exposure to very loud noise can severely damage a fraglile newborn's eardrums! It can cause long-lasting damage to a child's hearing!" There she was, late at night, out on the strip, with a hardened friend who also had a toddler in tow. And they didn't seem to be begging. When I asked her, she told me in broken English that they would go home at 4am. For the kids' sakes, I really really hope they weren't 'working'...

It only came to my attention a few days later, through my Twitter, that the Hong Kong-based ADM Capital Foundation are funding a project in Pattaya to help children at risk of neglect and sexual abuse. (Incidentally, ADMCF are also providing big bucks to Bloom, a marine environmental NGO who are doing great work for the sharks in Hong Kong). According to ADMCF's website, "Almost 2.5 million international tourists visit Pattaya every year, making it one of Thailand’s top tourist destinations. Unfortunately, with a population of 700,000 at the peak of tourist season, Pattaya is arguably the main destination for sex tourism in Southeast Asia. The large number of tourists attracts street-living children and youth. Over 2,000 children transit Pattaya every year from poorer Thai provinces. Increasingly, migrants are also coming from neighboring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Children who grow up on the streets of any large Asian city live an unstructured life. Theft, begging and peddling drugs often become their reality. In Pattaya, young girls and boys living on the streets are also at risk of sexual abuse". 

Pattaya is also a place where telescopic truncheons, knuckledusters, flick knives, vicious-looking collapsible hammers and even tasers are openly on sale in the street. All made in China, of course. Quite why anyone would want to buy a taser on their holdiday is beyond me. 'Land of Smiles' anyone?

In delightful Pattaya you can cuddle an endangered species for a 100 baht (HKD24.00/USD3.00), just like this Russian tourist.

A 'slow loris' is a slow-moving rainforest dwelling primate from South East Asia, and their numbers are being slowly wiped out by illegal traders. Their natural habitat is from NE India to the Philippines, from China to Indonesia, and every rainforest in between.

But their cuteness is also their curse. Slow lorises are being hunted to the verge of extinction for their use in traditional medicine, but also to sell to Japanese housewives, who, according to a three year old article on the BBC website, pay illegal wildlife traffickers anywhere between US$1,500 and US$4,500 per cute creature. Now I'm not sure which type of slow loris this is, but according to The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), all species of loris are listed as 'Vulnerable', except for the Javan Slow Loris of Indonesia which unfortunately finds itself further down the list, at 'Endangered'.

Seeing as the World Cup is on right now, I popped into a bar to catch the England vs USA match, the result of which was a most disappointing 1:1. In the bar I came across some England fans. More wildlife, except this time, unfortunately, not of the endangered variety...

Well worth reading is a great blog post about sex tourism in Asia by the anti-child trafficking NGO Love146, which can be found here.


Thai Boxing In Pattaya, Thailand.


Shark Fin Soup In Pattaya, Thailand.

You just can't get away from the damn stuff.

This man is preparing shark fin soup on the street for 300 Thai Baht (HKD72.00/USD9.25) a bowl. These days in Hong Kong it's getting harder and harder to find restaurants that let you shoot these kind of pictures. I guess the whole shark fin controversy hasn't yet rippled out to this part of South East Asia.

And by night...


Hell Hole Of The Universe: Pattaya, Thailand.

This week I'm on a newspaper assignment in the world's biggest sex tourism hub: Pattaya, Thailand.


The Hong Kong Shark Fin Lobby Are Starting To Crumble!

A small victory for anti-shark fin activism in Hong Kong.

Perhaps all the Facebook campaigns, media attention, and the general nascent revulsion against ocean rape, are starting to take effect.

'Super Star Seafood Restaurant' Group, a huge player in the local restaurant industry, is now offering 20% off shark fin dinners after 8:30pm. Could the shark-finners be feeling the heat? Has a tipping point in society been reached? Is demand falling? Are the dominoes starting to tumble? Seeing as today is World Ocean Day 2010, I would very much like to think so.

More good news. Our 'Man & Shark' video is finally completed. The short movie now has its very own soundtrack composed by the hugely talented London producer Dan Berkson. You can learn more about Dan's work here and here. And since our movie is no longer infringing Warner Brothers copyright with 'dummy' music (sorry Moby!), it is now allowed up onto YouTube. Yay!

Chinese version:-

English version:-

That's all for now, but there's lots more stuff going on in the stinky world of shark fin. Expect more news soon...


Man With Large Amounts Of Foam Spotted On A Bike In Shenzhen, China.

So anyway, just to get yesterday's naughtiness off the front page of the blog, here's one of those featurey-type of photos from China that picture editors in 'The West' so absolutley love.

I took this photo on Thursday, in Shenzhen, whilst on assignment for a Brazilian magazine. As a sign of the times that we're living in, this is the first time I have been commissioned to do a job by a South American client. Them BRICs and all that.

* Apologies to regular visitors of this blog for the slight hiatus in postings recently. I have been slammed from all sides with more work than I can handle. Everyone I know assures me that this is a good thing, but I sure could use a break right now. *


All images and text © Alex Hofford / Image Solutions Ltd. 2011 | Web design in Hong Kong by Ugli © 2011