Semporna, a town in eastern Sabah, is a world famous diving haven and revenue from diving activities reached about USD55.3mil (RM221.85mil) a year, Dr Johanna Zimmerhackel of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) told the Sabah Sharks and Rays Forum 2018 in Kota Kinabalu on Thursday (June 21).
Of this, shark diving made up USD16.6mil (RM66.6mil) and taxes collected from this amounted to USD3.6mil (RM14.44mil), she said.
The balance comes from various economic spin off activities such as hotels, restaurants, transport etc
"Protecting sharks and rays or maintaining their state or increasing them is the key message of the study," said Dr Zimmerhackel.
This was the result of an updated study to assess the current economic value of the shark-diving industry in Semporna, following the 2012 Shark Tourism Economic Valuation Study, that was led by the AIMS.
"There are many different conservation strategies, and setting up a shark sanctuary is one of them," said Dr Zimmerhackel.
She said while a study is needed to see whether a shark sanctuary would be the most feasible conservation strategy for Sabah, it could improve the diving experience of shark divers who are at risk of taking their tourism receipts elsewhere if the shark situation in Sabah continues to dwindle.
However, the situation is not so simple, as sharks and rays are part of the diet of traditional communities around Semporna, and are often the by-catch by fishermen.
Research at Pulau Mabul by Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) found that the Bajau Laut (sea gypsies) traditionally dry shark meat and turn them into salted fish for their own consumption.
UTM tourism research head Prof Amran Hamzah said rays have also been traditionally part of the Suluk community's diet in a dish called tiyula itum (black soup).
"The general reaction from the locals is denial, general apathy, or saying that (killing of sharks and rays) is a 'one-off' spectacle and that it did not involve protected species," said Prof Amran.
He said there is a need to educate local communities on the importance of conserving sharks and rays and also to elevate responsible tourism as an alternative source of income for them.
Other groups at the forum also underlined that the new government should review existing laws on shark protection.
WWF-Malaysia marine policy manager Shantini Guna Rajan said the review could mean regulating sustainable exploitation or completely protecting a species by including it in the list of legislation.
"Most importantly, the federal and Sabah state government must sit together to discuss how to review the regulations," said Shantini at.
The forum saw local, regional and international top campaigners discussing legal advances in protecting these sea creatures plus research and awareness raising efforts in Sabah.
Semporna is the most important hotbed in Sabah for both tourism and fishing of sharks, and the east coast district has been a focal point for researchers and campaigners.
Youth NGO Green Semporna co-founder Adzmin Fatta said it is crucial to empower the youth to change the culture in their communities.
"This doesn't mean banning eating shark meat entirely but there needs to be a balance between conservation, livelihood and culture.
"Green Semporna has been doing awareness raising work and shark education projects in Semporna.
"We have appointed 32 young shark ambassadors from secondary schools there to promote shark conservation among their peers and communities," said Adzmin.
The forum happening on June 21 and June 22 in Kota Kinabalu carries the theme "Exploring Synergies between Fisheries, Conservation and Tourism".
It is jointly organised by Land Empowerment Animals People (Leap), WWF-Malaysia and Sabah Sharks Protection Association (SSPA).
It is supported by the Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Ministry, Sabah Fisheries Department and Kota Kinabalu City Hall.
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