Sunday April 24, 2011

Sea of shrinking sharks

The shark population in the waters off Sabah is getting smaller and this is mainly due to shark finning activities.

DIVERS' logs in Sabah are beginning to show fewer sharks. “In 1996/97 when I first came here, we did a lot of surveys to see what the issues and problems were and what we could do about them,” says marine biologist Steve Oakley.

“In December last year and January this year, a group did a lot of dives around Sabah. We have taken their information as well as information from dive resorts around the coasts and have come up with a picture of how many sharks have been lost.”

According to Oakley, who set up the Green Connection Aquarium in Kota Kinabalu, a staggering 98% of the sharks that had been recorded from 1996 have been lost.

Clandestine acts: Sharks being finned on the island of Mabul.

A quick Google search revealed that Malaysia is ranked among the top 10 countries in the world that contribute to the depletion of sharks.

Both the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) have determined that sharks need protection. Many countries including the US (Hawaii) have imposed a ban on shark fishing.

Over the past few years, the campaign has picked up with “Say No to Shark's Fin Soup” groups from various countries supporting each other over the Internet. Their aim is to discourage people from consuming the soup, the biggest contributor to shark depletion. They also seek to remind people about the sharks' role in the ecosystem of the ocean.

Recently, this effort became more urgent as divers off Mabul Island, another popular dive site near Sipadan off the coast of Semporna in Sabah, witnessed the regular killing of sharks.

When he heard this, Kirk Keong Lee, founder of the Facebook group “Save the Shark from a Bowl of Soup”, went to Mabul to see it for himself.

“It was 6.45pm when someone told me there was shark finning in one of the villages. I rushed over with my camera and managed to see six or seven sharks, about two metres long, on land and another four or five in the water that had already been finned.

“I took a few pictures and when I turned off the camera, one of the persons there who spoke English well told me not to share the photos because some people had said it (sharks finning) was illegal,” he says.

“The fishermen cut off the fin, head and teeth (jaw) and dumped the body into the sea.”

Guests at the more luxurious five-star resorts are isolated from these frequent episodes of sharks finning, however. They continue to enjoy the marine life around the artificial reef created by the Sipadan Mabul Resort (Smart).

Kirk is supported by a huge online community, one of whom is Aderick Chong. Based in Kota Kinabalu, he has roped in his friends from the Junior Chambers International to support his campaign.

Recently, he met with Sabah Science, Tourism and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun to lobby for a ban on sharks finning.

After the meeting, the minister announced that shark's fin soup would no longer be served at all the ministry's functions.

It was a small but significant step to push the campaign forward.

But Chong seems to be swimming against the tide as there is nothing in the legislation to make sharks finning illegal.

Nevertheless, he continues to knock on the doors of government agencies, Chinese chambers, fisheries authorities and academics to lobby for sharks to be listed as protected animals.

Sharks finning is not an unknown activity as research on shark conservation in Sabah has revealed that it is being done.

“Through a socio-economic survey, we found that people on Mabul did shark finning. From the markets in Sabah, we also found that sharks that are not targeted are also caught in the trawl nets and most of the shark finning was carried out opportunistically,” says Dr Bernadette Mabel Manjaji Matsumoto, deputy director of the Borneo Marine Research Institute at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS).

The Borneo Marine Institute is spearheading a nation-wide study into the biodiversity of the coral triangle in Sabah. It is also working with other universities, both local and foreign, to conduct research in the area. One of the projects is the proposed one million-hectare Tun Mustapha Park covering the coastal areas of Kudat, Kota Marudu and Pitas, and including 50 islands.

Unfortunately, according to the institute's director, Prof Dr Ridzwan Abdul Rahman, banning sharks finning will have negative effects on the fishermen.

“It would mean depriving them of their livelihood. Before we can ban this activity, we must think of ways to create alternative livelihoods, such as through the tourism industry,” he says.

Dr Ridzwan feels that aquaculture or cage fishery and seaweed farming should be introduced as a form of alternative livelihood.

Sharks are like an underwater police. They keep the balance in the underwater ecosystem, he says.

“If you remove the police in any society, something will go wrong.”

However, even if they were not important in the marine eco-system, Oakley feels it is not morally right to deplete their population just for a bowl of soup.

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