Since 2013 when we signed onto an effort to ban shark fishing in Sabah, Borneo, Shark Stewards has been active in the region in policy, data collection and restoration in Malaysia. Invited to the country by conservation partners, I was impressed by the strong conservation community, particularly in Sabah.
Well known for its Orangutan, pygmy elephants and monkeys endemic to the rich rainforests, Sabah has large segments of remaining primary growth encroached by oil palm so prevalent on the, particularly the Kalamantan part of Indonesia that shares the world’s third largest island. We begin our trips teaching students about rainforest restoration along the Kinabatnagan river with a local collective called KOPEL with a conservation camp called the Tungog Rainforest Ecocamp. Students remove invasives, plant natives in restoration areas, teach locals monitoring and data collection methodology and experiment in restoration. Slow Loris and Tarsiers crawl among the trees, migratory elephants cross through the camp each year, gibbons hoot at dawn, proboscis and macaque monkeys forage at sunset, and the occasional grunts of orangutan drift through the dense undergrowth.
With a group of local NGOs and WWF Malaysia, we helped found the Sabah Shark Protection Association, dedicated to protecting Malaysia sharks from overfishing and the shark fin trade. The UNFAO lists Malaysia as number three globally in shark fin imports, yet exports are relatively low. To resolve this we have been collecting data on catch, fresh fin trading and attempting to gather trade records from the government which are difficult to come by. However, shark fin consumption is high in Malaysia, especially among “seafood tourists” from China and Southeast asia who travel to the region to vacation and consume cheap seafood.
Vendors at the open market at Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, openly sell large packages of shark fin, manta ray gill raker, seahorses, sea cucumbers and other dried seafood products. At the fresh fish market nearby fish mongers hawk fresh fins and meat from hammerhead, thresher and other species of shark. We filmed two episodes of Borneo From Below at the shark fin vendor. Not illegal, the fins are the first to be sold and bring the highest value. In many cases the meat ends up spoiling and goes to the fishball plant to be dried and mixed with other fish. The man admits that without the fins, he would not sell most of the sharks. Although shark finning is illegal in Malaysia, fins are leading the fishing and it is estimated 90% of sharks have disappeared from Malaysian waters.
Malaysia has delicious cuisine, and food is big in Kuala Lumpur, Kuching and in Kota Kinabalu. Among the many restaurants, shark fin soup is widely served. WWF has conducted a “Break the Bowl” pledge campaign to eschew shark fin soup. Polls indicate Malaysians may be changing their minds regarding this unsustainable dish, yet no-one seems to be asking the tourists. One problem I have observed is the lack of accounting on take home seafood. Each visitor is allowed to take home 10 kilos (22 pounds) of seafood and coolers are packed onto jet airliners without itemized customs declarations or CITES consideration.
Semporna in the southeast of Sabah is a major destination for divers. The pinnacle of these coral islands is Sipadan, a island inhabited only by a military outpost and with a deep water drop off, host to many sharks, sea turtles and migratory sharks like hammerheads and whale sharks. Many of the islands in the region have lost their coral reefs to dynamite fish bombing, or fish bombing, This destructive and illegal method of fishing is causing widespread and long term devastation to reef ecosystems and local economies. One island, Pom Pom is the location of a restoration and conservation program with our partners TRACC, the Tropical Research and Conservation Centre. Volunteer divers are rebuilding the bombed reef by constructing cement and bottle blocks and transplanting coral fragments. Last summer we reintroduced sharks rescued from trawlers and released tagged sharks onto the reef where they have been fished out. Discovery Channel Asia produced a feature on the tag and release experiment. This summer we returned to see Bamboo Reef and spotted catsharks swimming off the house reef. This might be a small victory, but it is gratifying to see coral growing and sharks swimming where they had been erased.
The scale of fish bombing extends beyond Malaysia and even outside the Coral Triangle to Africa and other marine ecosystems. To fight this devastation, we have joined an international effort called Stop Fish Bombing dedicated to education, enforcement, providing alternative livelihoods and sustaining marine protection in healthy habitat. We represented the effort at the United Nations Ocean conference and helped support voluntary commitments made by Malaysia and Timor Leste to stop fish bombing. With SFB and new technology, there is heightened interest among the Malaysian Government and the US embassy to stop Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported fishing like fish bombing. Two Ministers in particular are committed to marine conservation and are helping lead the charge to the Federal government.
In July we worked with local Bajou-Laut youth- a tribe of sea gypsy who have no citizenship or official recognition- on nearby Kalapuan Island,. This island is the source of Pom Pom’s boatmen, camp managers and cooks but also some desperate fishermen who still resort to fish bombing and overfishing. We celebrated sharks and educated youth with TRACC volunteers and a local group Green Semporna, and joined in cleaning their community from plastic before it enters the sea. We celebrated by making a giant shark (literally) with the kids, having a feast and finished with a shark dance party.
The next day we held our 5th Annual Swim For Sharks as an awareness event and fundraiser for the reef and shark conservation work on Pom Pom. Twelve of the team made the approximately 3 Km circumnavigation around Pom Pom, in remembrance of TRACC founder Professor Steve Oakley, shark champion and friend. The swim is also inspired by TRACC volunteer Erik Hagested who wanted to do the swim last year, but sadly passed away prematurely. We will continue with another swim in San Francisco and hope to make this an annual swim in Borneo.
Working in Borneo is challenging and rewarding. I’ve learned through the rainforest and reef restoration efforts that trying to bring back an ecosystem is far more difficult than protecting pristine habitat. It can take millennia for these biodiverse systems to return to their native state, and it is unlikely the species make up will ever be the same. Creating no take marine reserves and setting aside large areas of rainforests and reef should be priority conservation goals, but these have human coasts. Increasing population is bearing pressure on dwindling undisturbed habitat, requiring large scale programs that consider people in conservation. As we experience in the islands, people need alternative livelihoods.
After yet another expedition, I’ve returned to San Francisco exhausted and infected but hopeful after walking through rainforests with endemic apes, and diving with whale sharks. The wildlife of this world is vanishing, but there are remaining hotspots worth fighting for, and worth returning to experience true wildness, and in so doing, discovering the best part of what makes us human.