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Sabah’s sharks worth RM800m alive
Published on: Monday, April 10, 2023
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Sabah’s sharks worth RM800m alive
A diver with three whitetip reef sharks in Sipadan.
Kota Kinabalu: Sharks are among the main contributors of the estimated RM800 million revenue dive tourism brings to Sabah and no effort should be spared to ensure they do not end up killed.

Issuing the warning was local-based non-profit marine organisation, Marine Research Foundation (MRF).

Its Executive Director Dr Nicolas Pilcher (pic) said sharks are a major draw for local and international scuba divers, and feature in most tourism sales pitches.

“You take sharks out of waters, you take a big chunk out of dive tourism receipts,” he said. Dr Johanna Zimmerhackel of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) reported that the Semporna diving industry was worth USD72 million (RM316million) a year at the Sabah Sharks and Ray Forum 2018. Of this, she said USD22 million (RM100 million) was based on shark diving. Some 29pc of all tourists visit Semporna annually and 41pc of them ranked sharks as their principal attraction, followed by sea turtles and fishes.  Hence, if there are increases in shark and ray abundance and diversity, there is likely to be an increase in tourism demand. But this valuable resource is depleting, Dr Nicolas said, due to unselective fishing. “Given that sharks and rays play a crucial role in our ecosystems and economies, addressing accidental catch should be prioritised in a way that continues to ensure fisher livelihoods are maintained, but also that these endangered species are protected,” he said.

This called for reasoned and balanced conservation measures urgently to avoid drastic declines of sharks and rays in Sabah. He urged the State Government to step up measures to protect these valuable and incredible ocean ambassadors.

“It is clear that addressing accidental catch can only be part of the solution. We need government agencies and NGOs to continue encouraging consumers to avoid eating shark fins. As the well-known saying goes, when the buying stops, the killing stops. “Secondly, we need better ways to monitor and improve enforcement of international exports of sharks and rays - where high value fins are often in greater demand. And this is not as simple as it might sound. There are entrenched businesses that have depended on this trade for decades, and so management measures must be mindful of how this is phased out,” he said.

Sharks sold at the Sandakan Fish Market.

Dr Nicolas was responding to a Daily Express report recently that was accompanied by pictures of dried shark fins sold in KK that went viral among divers and tour operators. According to him, over one-third of shark and ray species are threatened with extinction globally, as consequence of overfishing, mainly due to accidental catch. “Even though Sabah does not have specific target fisheries for sharks, based on a statistic of Malaysia Department of Fisheries, 713 tonnes of sharks and 1,991 tonnes of rays were landed in 2021. “Our MRF research and studies showed that more than 138,000 individual sharks and rays were caught by trawl vessels in Sabah in a single year. “This does not include landings from other fishing gears such as the ubiquitous gillnets used by traditional fishers, longlines, and purse seine vessels,” he said.

What’s worse, Dr Nicolas said, is that most of these sharks and rays were caught accidentally due to unselective nature of trawl fishing, in such way that fishers can’t choose what to catch and what not to catch. “It’s not that sharks and rays are targeted, but similarly there are few efforts to do anything about it. Over time, this accidental catch of sharks and rays can lead to reduction in population sizes of vulnerable species, and may contribute to local extinctions. Imagine a Sabah with no sharks.

“Sustainable fisheries management practices such as time-area closures (closing a space for a short period) and gear restrictions (limiting the types of gear used in important shark areas) are two such measures that could reduce accidental catch of sharks and rays,” he said.

From a socio-economic perspective, Dr Nicolas said some local communities depend on sharks and rays as part of their diets, turned into salted fish or consumed in barbeque dishes such as ‘Ikan Pari Bakar’. However, he said not all sharks and rays are of high value, and many low value specimens continue to be sold in markets. For example, small sized shark and ray species such as spot-tail shark and bluespotted stingray and whiprays are sold cheaper than other commercially valuable fishes. “But while the sale of shark and ray meat is often opportunistic, the sale of their fins is a completely different story. “Until now, shark fins continue to attract high prices, making them an irresistible draw to fishers, who continue to capture, land and sell sharks with the sale of the fins being the most attractive target. “Sabah does not permit old-style shark finning, whereby fishers would chop off the fins and discard the rest.

“But the high value of the fins does mean that many threatened species such as the Blue Shark, Silky Shark, Hammerhead shark and Rhino ray, to name a few, remain a valuable catch to fishers. “They then sell the meat and other body parts, but the fins are really the high value item,” he said.

Meanwhile, President of Friends of Sea Turtles Education & Research (Foster) Alexander Yee said while there are obvious advantages for conservationists protecting the sharks, one of the challenges is to find a balance between communities who have sharks as their diet and us as the conservationists and tourism operators.

“When we lose a shark to trade, it is lost forever. But when we repeatedly see a live shark underwater, the revenues keep rolling in. “Given Sabah is a famous diving destination for international tourists, attracting more than 10,000 divers annually just to dive with sharks, it is clear a live shark is worth way more than a dead shark. “If we lose sharks in our waters, this will not only impact marine ecosystems, but also reduce tourist numbers and business revenues, and causes decreases in fisheries stocks,” he said.

A MRF team member Ho Kooi Chee, who has pioneered a lot of the research on sharks and rays in the State, summed this dilemma up perfectly: “What is more valuable? “The occasional plate of ikan pari sambal, the selfless pocketing of one-time shark fin cash revenues by a select few, or the incredible economic power of live sharks, driving multi-million ringgit revenues in tourism?”

“A world without sharks is like a puzzle without the crucial piece,” she said.

It is clear that addressing accidental catch can only be part of the solution. We need government agencies and NGOs to continue encouraging consumers to avoid eating shark fins – as the well-known saying goes, when the buying stops, the killing stops. Secondly, we need better ways to monitor for, and improve enforcement of international exports of sharks and rays - where high value fins are often in greater demand.

And this is not as simple as it might sound. There are entrenched businesses that have depended on this trade for decades, and so management measures must be mindful of how this is phased out. Alexander Yee, president of Friends of Sea Turtles Education & Research (FOSTER) said that, “while there are obvious advantages to us protecting our sharks, one of the challenges is to find a balance between communities who have sharks as their diet and us conservationists and tourism operators.”

When we lose a shark to trade, it is lost forever. But when we repeatedly see a live shark underwater, the revenues keep rolling in. Given Sabah is a famous diving destination for international tourists, attracting more than 10,000 divers annually just to dive with sharks, it is clear a live shark is worth way more than a dead shark. If we lose sharks in our waters, this will not only impact marine ecosystems, but also reduce tourist numbers and business revenues, and causes decreases in fisheries stocks. MRF team member Ho Kooi Chee, who has pioneered a lot of the research on sharks and rays in the State, summed this dilemma up perfectly: “What is more valuable? The occasional plate of ikan pari sambal, the selfless pocketing of one-time shark fin cash revenues by a select few, or the incredible economic power of live sharks, driving multi-million ringgit revenues in tourism?”

To avoid drastic declines of sharks and rays in Sabah, urgent, reasoned and balanced conservation measures are needed, and NGOs and academic institutions are urging the State government to step up measures to protect these incredible ocean ambassadors. A world without sharks is like a puzzle without the crucial piece.

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