We recently sat down with the Andrea Richey, Education Director of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation (HKSF), fondly known as the city’s “Shark Lady”. Richey has been at the forefront of leading shark conservation in Hong Kong, and inspiring younger generations to join the global fight to protect our planet’s beautiful creatures. In this interview with Green Queen, Richey discusses the challenges of her mission, her hopes for the future, and why she won’t stop “planting the seed” amongst Hong Kong’s youths.
GQ: Thank you for taking the time to speak to us, Andrea. What was the impetus for working on the shark conservation movement in Hong Kong?
AR: I was originally working in the corporate world, I was recruiting lawyers, and people were making a lot of money but many were not happy. When my father died and my mum suffered a heart attack, it made me think about what life was really about. I started to think that there must be something more to life than what I was doing. That was what motivated me to start volunteering work, during the course of which I realised that the sharks needed my help the most. I saw an image of shark fishing and finning – I was blown away at the unsustainable-ness and cruelty involved in what we were doing. I suddenly realised my disconnect between that bowl of soup that I had been eating, and how it got there. It was an education process – so I educated myself and volunteering at the HKSF.
GQ: Having been initially motivated by ethical reasons to cut out eating shark fin soup and raising awareness about the need to protect sharks, have you also cut out eating other animals in your diet?
AR: Yes, this educative journey led me to stop eating meat. And now I am fully vegan, because I am passionate about both the shark cause, animal cruelty in general, and the wider environment. While I practice a vegan lifestyle myself, I try and frame shark conservation in a way that speaks to non-vegans too by couching it as a health and sustainability issue that everyone should be aware of.
GQ: What are some of the most challenging aspects of your mission?
AR: It is a constant uphill battle. To be honest with you, I feel a bit like a small dung beetle sometimes on this journey. When HKSF ran out of money last year, everybody quit. At that time, I had worked for three years as a full-time volunteer. But when my personal situation changed I could no longer do that. But the reality is that this fight must go on. So I asked the board if I could continue on with HKSF as a full-time working member by raising money for the organisation, and they agreed. No matter what, I will figure things out because this is a bigger battle than mine. 90% of the shark population has dropped in the past 30 years, and this will affect everyone. I have so many great volunteers, but they have their own lives too. So hopefully, at some point, I will manage to get a great team working on this cause.
GQ: What is the toughest part of raising awareness about shark protection in Hong Kong, and is it possible to change people’s minds?
AR: It is tough, but it is definitely doable. It is a global problem that Hong Kong can be at the forefront of changing. We only eat the shark fins here, but in other places shark meat is eaten or shark skin used for clothing. This is not just a China or Hong Kong problem, but the reality is we are making a huge contribution to this problem. What this means is that we can also absolutely contribute to the solution.
The biggest phenomenon we suffer from here, in terms of shark killing, is passive consumption. People say they aren’t participating in something, but in reality, they do. For example, kids might tell me it isn’t respectful when they refuse to eat the bowl of shark fin soup placed in front of them. My retort is that it isn’t respectful to the animals that have to be killed for a meal that supposedly brings “luck”, when all it does is give someone face. We need to ask ourselves: is it worth that face?
GQ: What hope do you see for shark conservation globally? Will we ever be able to put an end to cruel shark practices?
AR: As an educator, I am hopeful. I am a farmer, planting the seed in the youths heads. I know it is a slow process, I know I need to be doing more. But that is why I am focused on raising funds and educating, so I can have a full team to dedicate to this cause.
The tide is turning – I can see that. For example, Yao Ming, the famous Chinese basketball player, did a public service announcement for WildAid. His slogan was: “When the buying stops, the killing stops too.” And I believe that absolutely.
GQ: In your opinion, what is the biggest issue that young people face, and what advice do you have for them?
AR: Young people in Hong Kong face disenfranchisement. They cannot see a future for themselves right now. Students are trying to focus and study hard, but to what end? But as an educator, I also see hope. Especially in the really young students, who are passionate about issues like the environment. They are the hope for our future, and I want to stand by them and encourage them.
My advice? Do what you can to make a difference, be the change! Don’t be passive. Even if the issue isn’t related to sharks. This mindset should apply to everything – whether it be the plant-based movement or plastic-free – you have the power. Take action, even if it is just a small step like a pledge to say no to shark fins.
GQ: Of course, we always have to end by asking: team rice or team noodles?
AR: Rice noodles! Pho is my favourite!
Lead image courtesy of Andrea Richey.