Which specie is the real killer - shark or human?

LETTER TO THE EDITOR                                                                                            02 NOVEMBER 2015

Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) is both shocked and disappointed at Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry Minister,  Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek’s  outright refusal for a nationwide law on shark hunting and finning and dismissing it as an industry in  the country.

The minister could be either ill-informed or is not aware that shark populations are under serious threat and now require total protection.  Perhaps the major obstacle in drawing up plans to conserve and protect sharks is either one may possess only the most basic knowledge of shark ecology and behaviour, or very little understanding of their numbers and population dynamics.

In most cases, due to a general lack of management and research on elasmobranch fisheries, it is not known if the level of harvest is sustainable.  There is very little known about the biology and ecology of most shark species and whether there exist available information on shark fisheries, domestic markets and trade, and management and conservation measures.  Shark species are currently in demand for their fins, cartilage, skins, meat, oil and livers.

Malaysia’s  Fisheries legislation do not protect sharks and rays, both as a species or for fisheries management purposes.  The fate of the shark is grim with widespread stock reduction from industrial fisheries and of localised stock depletion close to shore from the effects of industrial, recreational and large and small scale fisheries.

Annual reports of shark attacks on swimmers or surfers have put sharks on the top of the list of the world’s most feared living things.  However shark attacks are very rare. A shark attack inevitably makes news, but what is  rarely reported is that worldwide, humans kill 73 million sharks annually, a number that has ballooned in recent years because of the enormous demand for shark fins for consumption in shark fin soup. Though the appetite for shark fin soup is greatest in Asia, the carnage is global.  There are no international limits on the number of sharks that may be taken.

Nearly a third of shark species in the open oceans are threatened with extinction.  Despite their ferocity, sharks ensure a kind of order in the oceans.  Sitting at the top of the food chain, they keep other large predators in check.  Losing these top predators creates a cascading balance.  The species whose numbers the sharks  once controlled begin to explode which then wipe out smaller fish, some of which humans depend on for food.   Healthy oceans require sharks and without healthy oceans, fisheries are impossible.

Shark species have a slow growth rate, maturing late and produce few offsprings, which means that they are particularly vulnerable to overexploitation.  The problem now is that the high prices that fishermen can get for theses fins is driving the industry to overexploit the species most at risk.

Now is the time to act to save the sharks before they are entirely wiped out. The best protection method is to establish marine reserves which should also include the development of marine sanctuaries for the protection of reefs and marine life where fishing is off limits for a while so the vanishing species can replenish.  Such a strategy works for imperiled commercial fish and could work for sharks but it would take more time because sharks are slow breeders.

Sabah state should carry out a review into the elasmobranch biodiversity, taxonomy, population status, fisheries and markets in the region conservation and management.  Data collection and measures to conserve sharks should be taken into account.

Other initiatives are Heads of Government, Ministries and government officials should realise the barbaric act of shark finning and cease serving shark fins on their dinner tables because it is the consumer demand that is driving the trade.

Hotel chains should bear in mind the environmental and sustainability issue and to remove shark fins from their menu.  People will change their attitudes once they are truly informed.

Steps that should generate further momentum in shark conservation would be the banning of shark fins by airlines.  So far Garuda Airlines has joined the international list of airlines - Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific, Emirates Airlines, Fiji Airways and Korean Air.  By the same token SAM expects  Malaysia Airlines Berhad  (MAB) and Air Asia to do likewise.

Above all the Ministry of Agriculture  should set its sight on a legislation  banning  shark finning and the import of shark fins.  Many countries have done so, so why not Malaysia.

Just like any other endangered species shark species need protection too.

S M Mohd Idris

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