Shark Shepherd: Saving Sharks with Art

As part of the Sabah Shark Protection Association (SSPA), Shark Stewards is calling for Malaysia to protect its dwindling shark populations in the country, especially in Semporna. Sharks are being landed near tourist resorts and divers are recording a rapid decline in shark and ray species threatening dive ecotourism and the health of local marine ecosystems.

SSPA President, Aderick Chong, has made an urgent call for shark protection in light of distressing news that the shark fishing on Pulau Mabul has resumed.  In the Semporna Islands of Sabah, Mabul is home to several resorts catering to dive tourism and is host to tens of thousands of international visitors annually.

Global shark tourism generates revenue of around US$750 million annually and is expected to keep growing to over $1 million annually over the next 20 years.

“Shark fishing needs to stop immediately. Most shark species are endangered and we cannot afford to lose more due to direct take from humans,” stresses Chong of the SSPA. “Fresh shark meat and dried shark fins and products are still openly traded in wet markets and shops throughout Sabah.”

Sharks are being landed and finned in plain view of the public, which includes local and
international tourists and divers who come to Semporna expecting to see the beauty and wonders of our marine treasures, especially the rare and endangered sharks.

“Shark carcasses and large rays are sold in all the major fresh fish markets and shark fin is prolific, particularly in Sabah. We are seeing the loss of these important species at great harm to the local community and economy,” said David McGuire, Director of Shark Stewards. “We are calling for local and international support to save Sabah sharks and rays and support dive tourism in the region.”

To counter the loss of sharks and rays from Malaysian waters, Shark Stewards has joined up with artist Benjamin Wong to garner international support for the Sabah government to stop shark and ray fishing.

With Von Wong, Shark Stewards is developing support through online petition.

The demand for shark fin and meat leads to the high volumes of sharks being caught. Ray gill rakers used as traditional Chinese medicine is leading to the loss of large manta and mobulid rays species. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization State of the global market for shark products, ranks Malaysia as the world’s 9th largest shark producer and 3rd largest shark importer in volume. The report clearly indicates that Malaysia is a major shark producer with a large consumer market for shark fins.

Apart from the economic benefits from dive tourism, sharks help to regulate the marine ecosystem and keep our oceans healthy. According to new studies apex predators like sharks help protect carbon stocks in blue carbon ecosystems. Sharks also help maintain the health of coral reefs, protect vital sea habitats and even prevent climate change.

Sharks are very vulnerable to over-exploitation because they are slow-growing, mature at a late age, and have relatively low productivity. Therefore, their populations are slow to reproduce and may not recover once overfished.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry and Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment Sabah have both suggested banning shark finning in the past 5 years but no action has been taken.

With local film production ScubaZoo, Shark Stewards is also helping produce an online conservation series to promote dive ecotourism, and save Malaysian sharks.

SSPA urges that the need is apparent and urgent to strengthen shark protection under relevant conservation and fisheries laws in Malaysia.

SSPA is made up of the Malaysian Nature Society (Sabah branch), Marine Conservation Society (MCS), Shark, Education, Awareness and Survival (SEAS), Scubazoo, Tropical Research and Conservation Centre (TRACC), WWF-Malaysia, Shark Stewards and Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP).

SSPA, is a Malaysian civil society collaboration that targets to save sharks and rays in Sabah, sees their objective through developing a no-shark fin campaign in order to reverse the present scenario of high shark-fin consumption in Malaysia, in order to reduce the demand to fish for sharks.

This campaign is proposed to target different stakeholders to create awareness leading to tangible reduction in these consumptions in Malaysia.

SSPA’s core objectives are:

1. To draft conservation and management plans for sharks, Mobula rays and eagle rays protection and get them approved by all relevant authorities.

2. To allow anyone concerned to be part of this alliance; e.g., dive operators, fishermen, and others to hold regular and sustained public forums; for members of the public to voice concerns from the ground.

3. To raise awareness of the importance of sharks, Mobula rays and eagle rays and their habitat,and share all relevant information.

4. To promote collaboration among NGOs, dive operators, fishermen, traders, academicians, fishing associations, and other stakeholders.