Posted on 10 April 2016
WWF-Malaysia launches its first nationwide shark conservation campaign, and is up against a long-standing consumption tradition. Here’s why protecting this apex predator is critical to human survival, and how WWF plans to do it.
Sharks are among the most charismatic and iconic of marine animals, despite being perceived by the general public as dangerous predators, to be feared and avoided. Ironically, they also provide the main ingredient of one of the world’s most prized culinary delicacies, shark fin soup—and as a result, have been hunted by humans in unprecedented numbers. They are also hunted for their meat, leather, liver oil, and cartilage, and are often caught as bycatch with other species.
Without sharks, the survival of human beings would be under grave threat. “Sharks are keystone species in the oceans and are at the top of the marine food chain,” says Chitra Devi, WWF-Malaysia Sustainable Seafood Manager. “They keep populations of commercial and non-commercial fish in check and healthy by eating old, sick, or slower fish. By removing these, a shark prevents the potential outbreak of diseases and strengthens the gene pool of the prey species. Only stronger and healthier fish remain to reproduce in greater numbers, which leads to much healthier fish in the seas.”
Thus, the high—and still growing—demand for shark fin in Malaysia will deplete seafood supplies and consequently, jeopardise food security. “Eventually, the decline of sharks will also affect human survival in the long run because seafood is one of Malaysia’s main protein sources,” Devi adds.
This is the motivation behind the first nationwide shark protection campaign by WWF-Malaysia, launched this year. To be carried out in collaboration with other environmental organisations such as the Sabah Shark Protection Association (SSPA), Reef Check Malaysia, Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Selangor Branch Marine Group, Shark Savers, and Scuba Schools International (SSI), the campaign, “My Fin My Life,” will involve a series of public awareness activities in the major Malaysian cities of Penang, Kota Kinabalu, and Klang Valley.
SSPA, whose formation was initiated by WWF-Malaysia, is a civil society group working to save sharks and rays in Sabah, specifically through a no-shark fin campaign that targets a broad range of stakeholders.
More protected species
Last September 2014, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) also included five shark species and all manta ray species in the protected list. The protected sharks are the oceanic whitetip, scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead, smooth hammerhead, and porbeagle. A total of 16 countries have a shark fin trade ban, reports WWF-Malaysia.
“The goal is to urge consumers to save sharks by not consuming shark fins and products,” explains Devi. “Every time a consumer says no to shark fin soup, we are not only saving the life of a shark, but also thousands of marine creatures. As more consumers give up shark fin soup altogether and encourage other people to do the same, we will eventually restore shark populations to healthy levels, and our oceans to their natural equilibrium.”
Global shark tourism also generates some US$314 million annually, an amount expected to grow to $780 million annually over the next 20 years, reports WWF-Malaysia in their shark factsheet.
The figures on shark fishing in the country, where at least 63 species of sharks can be found, are alarming, indeed. The country is the world’s ninth largest producer of shark products and third largest importer by volume, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 2015 report, “State of the Global Market for Shark Products.” From 2000 to 2011, Malaysia imported some 1,172 metric tonnes (mt) of shark fin annually, worth RM14 million (about US$3.4 million), and consumed an annual average of 1,384 mt.
Devi notes that 2004 was a particularly bad year, as consumption jumped sharply from 38 to 366 mt in just one year. “Some 84% of the imported shark fins were consumed domestically, and this implies that there's a huge volume of shark fins consumed in Malaysia. In fact, the consumption has been increasing rapidly since 2004, at an average rate of 54% per year.”
Sharks are particularly prone to over-exploitation, as they mature late, have long life spans, and grow and reproduce slowly. Once overfished, populations take a while to bounce back—a major concern, as these top predators have an important role to play in maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems.
Killed for prestige
High demand for shark fin remains the biggest problem, as consumption is no longer limited to Malaysia’s Chinese population. “Shark fins are usually associated with wealth, power, and prosperity, and are served as a mark of prestige or to honour guests,” Devi says of the long-standing tradition of eating shark fins. “They are served as part of a soup delicacy during Chinese New Year, and at wedding banquets, reunions, corporate dinners.”
Devi cites the 2015 Asian City Shark Fin Consumer Survey conducted by WWF from 16 October to 19 November, which confirmed that consumption of shark fin soup remains strongly associated by 85% of respondents with celebrations such as weddings. In fact, 43% of those surveyed believe that this tradition is more important than the environmental implications of consuming shark fin.
There have been previous efforts to conserve the species in Malaysia, Devi notes, including a ban on shark fin, formalized in 2014, in all official government functions, and the plan to include sharks among the main protected species in the proposed million-hectare Tun Mustapha Park by the State Government of Sabah. Still, “If the present trade of sharks continues, businesses will exhaust the supply of fins forever,” Devi warns.
“My Fin My Life” is targeting 1,000,000 Malaysians who will pledge to give up shark fin by signing up online at myfinmylife.com
. The campaign will ask hotel chains, restaurants, businesses and corporations, associations, clubhouses, and wedding planners to commit to stop using shark fin products, and even market fin-free wedding packages. WWF-Malaysia is setting ambitious targets: 20,000 restaurants sensitised and 500 businesses committing to drop shark fin and shark fin soup from their menus or dining options by July 2016.
“The purpose of this campaign is to raise awareness on the importance of sharks in sustaining a healthy ocean,” Devi concludes. “WWF-Malaysia aims to reverse the present scenario by engaging businesses to unanimously pledge not to serve, purchase, or trade shark fin and products. It is time for Malaysians to stop this consumption pattern.”