Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Letter to the Editor: Shark Fishing Neither Accidental Nor Negligible

It is with incredulity that Malaysians responded to the Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry Minister Dato’ Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek’s statements that there was no necessity for a ban on shark finning in Malaysia as it is not a domestic industry, and that sharks were not caught on purpose (Oct 6).
This flies in the face of statistics supplied by wildlife conservation organization, TRAFFIC, which reports that Malaysia has the eight highest rate of shark catch in the world, with 231,212 tons caught from 2002 until 2011. For an ‘industry that doesn’t exist’, this number is alarmingly high.
For an ‘industry that doesn’t exist’ in Malaysia, finding sharks and shark fins being sold openly also seems to be a worryingly common sight. In fact, a feature story in The Star in Oct 2014 even tries to pass off the sale of a juvenile shark as ‘ecotourism’.
To conclude that there is no need for a ban on shark finning because ‘sharks are not caught on purpose’ shows a grave lack of awareness on the Minister’s part on environmental issues in Malaysia. Once this excuse is made on behalf of poachers and fishermen, there will be no shortage of individuals catching endangered species for profit and consumption and claiming that sharks, turtles and other protected species were accidental by-catch.
There is also no logic to the argument that there should not be a ban or restriction on a destructive activity simply because it was unintentional. Whether the sharks were caught by fishermen on purpose does not detract from the fact that shark populations in Malaysia are under threat.
A 2014 study published in conservation journal eLife reports that 25% of all shark species are under threat of extinction. Blacktip reef sharks and spot-tail sharks, found in Malaysia and frequently sold and consumed, are listed as near-threatened on the IUCN Red List.
Despite being portrayed in popular culture as merciless killers, sharks actually have a vital role to play in the marine ecosystem as top predators at the pinnacle of the marine food pyramid. As sharks usually hunt old, weak or sick prey, they help to keep the prey population healthy and strong, enabling these more naturally fit animals to reproduce and pass on their genes. Sharks also trim down many populations of marine animals to the right size, and therefore mitigate the harm these species cause to the marine ecosystem through overpopulation. Sharks regulate the behaviour of prey species, and prevent them from over-grazing vital habitats. The effects of removing sharks from ocean ecosystems, although complex and rather unpredictable, are very likely to be ecologically and economically damaging.
Sharks are an incredibly fragile 'keystone species', partly due to the fact that sharks are slow-growing animals that mature late, live long, and have a low reproduction rate. The depletion of shark populations may cause the entire marine food web to collapse, resulting in the loss of commercially important fish and shellfish species as well.
It is clear to anyone from the high rates of shark fishing in Malaysia that sharks are a targeted and not accidental catch, and that there is a market in Malaysia for shark meat and shark fins. A ban on shark fishing would therefore go a long way towards protecting shark populations. From a human health point of view, heavy metals and other environmental toxins accumulate in plant and animal tissues through the well-documented process of bioaccumulation. Sharks are prone to bioaccumulation through diet, as they incorporate metals very efficiently and eliminate them slowly. Eating shark meat exposes the consumer to these potentially dangerous toxins, in particular, high levels of the methyl mercury. While a certain amount of mercury in the environment is natural, growing worldwide pollution of our oceans is increasing the risk of high mercury levels in the fish we eat, particularly fish at the top of the food chain like sharks. Consuming sharks will increase the level of mercury one ingests, which will in turn increase one's risk of neurological disorders, coronary heart disease and other serious health issues.
It is critical that there is legislation to monitor fishing vessels and their fishing methods to prevent overfishing, and to ban shark fishing and enforce penalties for the capture of and trade in sharks. Apart from targeted fishing, sharks are also threatened by pollution and habitat destruction. As such, marine protected areas must be established to protect marine ecosystems and habitats to mitigate the effects of pollution and habitat loss to shark populations.
As a concerned citizen, I hope that our ministers will demonstrate clear thinking and good judgement in addressing environmental and other issues, and work together with credible advocacy groups, including conservation organisations, to obtain verifiable data and information that will assist them in making the best decisions for the country.

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