Hong Kong’s 17 Different Species of Sharks and Why You’ll Probably Never See Them


Why Would Sharks Choose to Come to Hong Kong?

Contrary to popular belief and the eye-watering stench that occasionally wafts by when you walk along any of Hong Kong’s crowded waterfronts, the city possesses one of the most diverse marine ecosystems relative to its size in the world.

Even though Hong Kong’s 1,651 km2 of marine area represents only 0.03% of China's total marine space, “Hong Kong's marine ecosystems support ~26% of all the marine species recorded in China.”

In recent years, government data has demonstrated that the water quality across the board in Hong Kong has seen improvements. For example:

The number of beaches meeting the WQO for bathing water was increased to 41 since 2010, compared with 26 in 1997

Levels of key pollutants in the Harbour have generally decreased.

The number of river monitoring stations with bad or very bad water quality dropped, from over 50% in 1988, to less than 10% in recent years

Designated Marine Parks and Reserve

Hong Kong also has seven marine parks and one marine reserve. These include:

The duties of the authorities in charge of marine parks and reserves include the following

  • Recommendation of new areas as marine parks or marine reserves;
  • to control and manage marine parks and marine reserves, and to take measures to:
  • Protect, restore and enhance marine life in and marine environment of any marine park or marine reserve;
  • manage the use of resources in marine parks to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations of mankind;
  • facilitate recreational activities in marine parks; and
  • provide opportunities for educational and scientific studies in the marine life in and marine environment of marine parks and marine reserves

This all paints a rosy picture, but looking at the health of Hong Kong’s shark populations can tell us a lot more than government statistics can…

What Types of Sharks Can You Find in Hong Kong?

Now that we know that Hong Kong’s waters are actually capable of supporting shark life based on marine diversity and protected marine areas, let’s take a deep dive into what types of shark species have been reported in Hong Kong in the past.

The below data comes from this amazing factsheet compiled by Dr. Andy Cornish, a global conservation leader and the World Wildlife Fund’s go-to expert on Hong Kong sharks. Each of these species has been verified at some point during Hong Kong's history.

Hong Kong's 17 shark species are:

Slender Bambooshark

  • Max length: 65cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 0
  • UN Conservation Status: Near Threatened
  • Sightings: No sightings in decades

Whitespotted Bambooshark

  • Max length: 95cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 0
  • UN Conservation Status: Near Threatened
  • Sightings: Reasonably abundant in Hong Kong

Grey Reef Shark

  • Max length: 240cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 8 non-fatal, 1 fatal
  • UN Conservation Status: Near Threatened
  • Sightings: No sightings in decades

Whitecheek Shark

  • Max length: 100cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 0
  • UN Conservation Status: Endangered
  • Sightings: No sightings in decades

Silky Shark

  • Max length: 370cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 2 non-fatal
  • UN Conservation Status: Vulnerable
  • Sightings: HK waters are atypical. No sightings in decades

Bull Shark

  • Max length: 400cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 91 non-fatal, 25 fatal
  • UN Conservation Status: Near Threatened
  • Sightings: Dead juvenile shark reported in Tuen Mun 2008, though legitimacy is still Unconfirmed

Blacktip Shark

  • Max length: 255cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 14 non-fatal
  • UN Conservation Status: Near Threatened
  • Sightings: Several seen at Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park in 2007, one of which was caught by a commercial fisherman. 4 individuals recorded by one study in local wet markets from Apr 2007-May 2008.

Hardnose Shark

  • Max length: 110cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 0
  • UN Conservation Status: Near Threatened
  • Sightings: No sightings in decades

Blacktip Reef Shark

  • Max length: 200cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 14 non-fatal
  • UN Conservation Status: Near Threatened
  • Sightings: No sightings in decades

Spot-tail Shark

  • Max length: 280cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 0
  • UN Conservation Status: Near Threatened
  • Sightings: Rarely seen. One study recorded 65 mostly juveniles in local fish markets from Oct 2006-Dec 2008

Tiger Shark

  • Max length: 550cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 95 non-fatal, 34 fatal
  • UN Conservation Status: Near Threatened
  • Sightings: In 1995, tiger sharks caused three fatalities in HK waters. The only verified sighting since was of a 1.6m juvenile caught in 2009

Milk Shark

  • Max length: 110cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 0
  • UN Conservation Status: Least Concern
  • Sightings: No sightings in decades

Grey Sharpnose Shark

  • Max length: 70cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 0
  • UN Conservation Status: Least Concern
  • Sightings: No sightings in decades

Spadenose Shark

  • Max length: 74cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 0
  • UN Conservation Status: Near Threatened
  • Sightings: One of only two shark species that is still reasonably abundant in Hong Kong. HK may be a nursery ground for them

Great Hammerhead Shark

  • Max length: 550-610cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 15 non-fatal (all hammerhead sharks combined)
  • UN Conservation Status: Critically Endangered
  • Sightings: No sightings in decades, but the species is nomadic and probably never lived in HK

Scalloped Hammerhead Shark

  • Max length: 400cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 15 non-fatal (all hammerhead sharks combined)
  • UN Conservation Status: Critically Endangered
  • Sightings: Rarely seen. A comprehensive study recorded 52 mostly juvenile individuals in local fish markets from Oct 2006-2008

Whale Shark

  • Max length: 1700-2100cm
  • Global Attacks Since 1960s: 0. Just don’t get close enough to be accidentally struck
  • UN Conservation Status: Endangered
  • Sightings: Whale sharks apparently migrate south of Hong Kong in the summer months, and sub-adults occasionally venture into local waters.

Sharks Were Common in Hong Kong in the 1940s Where are They Now?

Sharks were commonplace in Hong Kong waters up until the 1940s. In earlier times, all 17 species listed above were reported in and around Hong Kong, though most of them are locally extinct now with no sightings in decades.

How could such rich marine habitat suddenly see its shark population plunge? The answer is nonstop targeted fishing.

In the 1950s, Hong Kong set up a fishery made up of around 50 boats that specifically specialized in the capturing of sharks. At the peak of this horrific operation in the 1960s, there were some 2,400 tonnes of sharks caught annually from Hong Kong’s waters. The fishery’s business collapsed in the 1980s.

When asking Dr. Cornish about the fishery and its impact on Hong Kong’s local shark population, he told Hong Kong Hike exclusively that “the fishery probably targeted sharks for their fins and meat, and yes it collapsed as shark stocks were overfished.”

The fishery, along with the impact of bottom trawls and gill nets, led to the complete decimation of Hong Kong’s resident shark population and likely many other local species caught as an accidental byproduct of this horrendous overfishing.

This cause and effect chain is further confirmed by NGO Bloom Association, who say, “Hong Kong’s waters, once alive with manta rays, green sea turtles, Hong Kong groupers, Chinese Bahaba and hammerhead sharks, have been exploited to such an extent that fisheries have collapsed.”

Hong Kong’s Toxic Love Affair with Shark Fin

Were the fisheries set up to eliminate sharks because they were seen as a threat to the local population? Quite the opposite. Instead of fearing sharks taking a bite out of us, Hong Kong has a fascination with the consumption of shark fins.

Hong Kong and Guangzhou, mainland China, are the largest shark fin markets and consumption centers in the world.”

Considered a local delicacy that’s served at large banquets, weddings and festivals to show wealth, the fins are put into a gelatinous soup and flavored with chicken broth. The tremendously sad thing is that shark fin itself has no inherent flavor since it’s made of cartilage. The flavor all comes from other ingredients which makes the overfishing of Hong Kong’s sharks all the more frustrating.

Hong Kong is a Criminal Hub for Shark Fin Trafficking

Selling shark fin is so lucrative that Hong Kong has become a hub for criminals who have now taken to catching sharks around the world and sending their fins back to Hong Kong and Guangzhou for consumption.

Criminal groups use the large number of container ships entering Hong Kong to hide large hauls of illegal shark fins.

Data from TRAFFIC, who are working to find a sustainable solution to the demand for shark fin, indicates that “the amount of shark fin seized in Hong Kong…increased from roughly 1 tonne in 2014 to 29 tonnes in 2020.”

According to a 2017 study, Hong Kong is responsible for 50 percent of the global shark fin trade and plays a huge role in the unsustainable and illegal wildlife trade.

For greater perspective, the fins of over 50 million sharks pass through Hong Kong each year.

Illegal Hong Kong Shark Fins Hiding in Plain Sight

The trade of shark fins in Hong Kong is not illegal. You only need to visit Sheung Wan or Sai Ying Pun to see rows upon rows of shops openly selling shark fins.

The problem is that though Hong Kong does require shark fin sellers to comply with regulations imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), many sellers do not.

The main point of the convention is that sellers are only allowed to sell the fins in a way that’s sustainable to worldwide shark populations. Certain species are banned from being harvested for their fins. The overall goal of the convention is to control the trade of protected species.

Because of the sheer volume of shark fins that enter Hong Kong on a daily basis, it’s impossible to check every fin, which means endangered and vulnerable sharks - often on the brink of extinction - still find their way into Hong Kong shark fin shops.

Which Shark Species Were Found in Sampled Shark Fin Products?

A study conducted by Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in association with Florida International University, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and BLOOM Association Hong Kong, reveals that two thirds of the species found in Hong Kong’s shark fin markets face extinction.

At least 11% of shark fins came from CITES protected species as of 2017 and the number seems to be steeply increasing on a yearly basis.

After 10,000 shark fins were genetically tested, the results were truly horrific.

The Blue Shark was by far the most common species found in the shark fin sample, but a mixture of coastal species were also found, such as blacktip, dusky, spinner, and sandbar sharks. These species are “threatened with extinction without proper management and protection.

You can find a great graphic here.

How are the Fins Collected? The Inhumane Practice of ‘Finning’

If you’re squeamish, perhaps don’t read too deep into this section. When sharks are caught, they are often only stripped of their most valuable body parts – their fins.

The practice, known as ‘finning’, sees fishermen haul sharks onto their ships and hack off their dorsal and pectoral fins with large blades before throwing the sharks back into the ocean (still alive) where they die either of blood loss or drowning.

Without their fins, sharks can no longer swim and water can’t pass effectively through their gills to help oxygenate their blood.

The practice is barbaric and cruel, adding an additional layer of horror to the trade in shark fins.

Hong Kong's Unsustainable Lust for Seafood

Hong Kong has a staggering rate of seafood consumption compared to just about every single other country in the world.

Hong Kong’s marine footprint is alarming, with 71.2 kg (second highest in the Asia) of seafood consumed by each inhabitant each year, compared to a world average of 18.9kg.”

While Hong Kong is a coastal city that’s surrounded by ocean, 90% of all its seafood is actually imported, adding pressure to global seafood stocks.

There’s a reason, though, that Hong Kong doesn’t fish in its own waters. Remember the government statistics mentioned previously about great water quality? Well, they may have to be taken with a grain of sea salt.

At the turn of the 21st century, the average weight of fish caught in Hong Kong was 10 grams; that is three times lighter than a sparrow. Moreover, Hong Kong’s waters are full of toxins and heavy metals.”

Sharks and Fish Have ZERO Protection in Hong Kong

Unlike many terrestrial animals in Hong Kong, fish and sharks have ZERO protection in Hong Kong under the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance (WAPO) laws. Dr. Cornish elaborates, “Currently legislation that protects certain animals here specifically excludes fish. That needs to be amended first, and there doesn't seem to be momentum for them to do so yet.”

This means that while certain damaging fishing methods (such as using explosives) are banned, targeting rare and endangered fish -like sharks- isn’t.

There are currently no limits on the numbers of sharks that can be caught in Hong Kong waters and no protections for them at all.

Hope for Hong Kong's Sharks in the Future

There is a slow decline in the consumption of shark fin, possibly because the younger generation simply doesn’t see the same appeal in it.

Dr. Cornish provides some insights into the matter by revealing, “Shark consumption is declining in Hong Kong, but not uniformly and most of the large Chinese banqueting restaurants still serve it.”

A landmark decision was made by world governments in 2022 which placed all 54 species of requiem sharks and hammerhead sharks on CITES Appendix II. This decision places almost every single type of shark that’s currently traded for their fins under CITES protections and controls.

Requiem sharks and hammerhead sharks made up “well over half of the shark fins traded annually in a half-billion dollar trade. Now no trade will be possible unless it is sustainable – giving these species a chance to recover.”

Sharks are a Must for a Healthy Marine Ecosystem

Without apex predators like sharks, the marine ecosystem goes completely out of sync and we begin to see an overabundance of prey fish. Why is this a problem? Well, first, it begins to create a decrease in biodiversity. When one prey fish outcompetes another, its population swells and is kept in check by apex predators like sharks. If nothing exists to maintain that balance, we could see populations of one or two types of fish dominate, while others die out.

Another benefit that sharks provide is ensuring that excess carbon doesn’t enter our atmosphere. By feeding on dead fish at the bottom of the ocean, sharks absorb the carbon from those animals. In turn, when large sharks die, scavengers consume their bodies and recycle the carbon.

They even help to protect coral and sea grasses as an abundance of prey fish would end up overgrazing and decimating these important ocean habitats.

By eating the weakest fish, sharks help to ensure a strong and healthy gene pool of ocean animals. Without sharks to pick off weaker and sick animals, we could end up with global fish populations that are far more susceptible to diseases while also being less genetically diverse.

5 Things You Can Do to Help Shark Populations in Hong Kong

  1. Say no to all shark and shark fin products
  2. Educate your friends or family about 'finning' and the harm that consuming shark fins has on the local ecosystem
  3. Donate to NGOs that help with shark conservation in Hong Kong like WWF, Kadoorie Farm Botanic Garden, Hong Kong Shark Foundation, Bloom Association, etc.
  4. Don’t pollute in ocean waters
  5. Write to relevant government departments asking for better protection of sharks and fish