11 March, Kota Kinabalu: Sharks are at the top of the marine food chain. They prevent potential outbreak of diseases and help improve the gene pool of other fish species. These are crucial in ensuring continued supply of fish as a major and affordable protein source for Malaysians.
As keystone species, sharks keep populations of commercial and non-commercial fish in check and healthy by eating old, sick or slower fish. This in turn paves the way for only healthier and stronger fish to remain and to reproduce in larger numbers, keeping the marine ecosystem stable, said the Sabah Shark Protection Association (SSPA).
SSPA is concerned that despite studies confirming what sharks do for the ecosystem, each day various types and sizes of sharks are fished from their ocean habitat and pass through the trade chain ending up as a meal, mainly in the form of shark fins soup.
Elaborating SSPA’s concern, WWF-Malaysia’s Marine Programme Sustainable Seafood Manager Chitra Devi G. said people often forget that sharks are wildlife and their existence plays a crucial role in keeping the ecosystem healthy.
“The high consumption of shark fins in Malaysia causes sharks to be overfished. The decline of sharks will cut short our supply of seafood and affect human survival. This is a matter of food security, and if the present trade of sharks continues, businesses will exhaust supply of fins and of sharks forever. The current exploitation of sharks is simply not sustainable. Sharks cannot reproduce fast enough to cope with the high demand and many shark populations are on the verge of collapse,” Chitra explained.
Alongside WWF-Malaysia, SSPA is made up the Malaysian Nature Society (Sabah branch), Marine Conservation Society (MCS), Shark, Education, Awareness and Survival (SEAS), Scubazoo, Tropical Research and Conservation Centre (TRACC), Shark Stewards and Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP).
According to various studies, sharks also help maintain the health of coral reefs, protect vital sea habitats and prevent climate change.
For example, a study on the effects of the loss of predatory sharks on the United States eastern seaboard published in 2007 by Ransom A. Myers and others, suggested that eliminating great sharks carries a risk of broader ecosystem degradation.
The study recorded an increase in the prey of great sharks, such as cownose rays. Unchecked, these rays consumed more bay scallops, sufficient to terminate a century-long scallop fishery. This downward cascade potentially could extend to seagrass habitat, exacerbating stresses on already highly degraded coastal systems, the paper said.
Based on the State of the Global Market for Shark Products Report 2015 produced by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Malaysia is the world’s ninth largest producer of shark products and the third biggest importer.
A survey carried out by WWF in 2015 showed 85 per cent of shark fins soup consumption was at weddings, followed by family reunions, corporate functions and festivals.
At a SSPA workshop last year, it was shared that the average annual landing of sharks and rays in Malaysia is 6,728 metric tonnes and 13,396 metric tonnes, respectively. Sabah recorded 23 per cent of shark and 18 per cent of ray landings out of the national average.
It was also revealed that the Semporna district on Sabah’s southeast coast is the home and mating ground of a wide variety of sharks and rays such as the white tip reef shark, grey reef shark, leopard shark and devil ray.
SSPA champions the protection of endangered sharks and rays in Sabah through three areas of work – habitat protection through existing or new Marine Protected Areas; the strengthening of governance and law; and continued awareness raising, especially among consumers and engagement with the business sector to reduce pressure on sharks in the wild.