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Shark finning in Sabah on Mabul near Sipadan

In January a post appeared on the WetPixel forum that showed pictures of shark finning in Sabah on Mabul near Sipadan, which is popular and famous for its diving treasures.

As WetPixel is a dive forum, it quickly garnered a lot of attention amongst divers and spread to other dive boards. In doing so it got attention and coverage approaching viral status. What made matters worse was a reply from the Sabah Fisheries Department’s Director who said that shark finning is technically not illegal, as long as it’s within the boundaries of the fisherman’s license.

By the time I got linked to the forum, being the eco-warrior (and blogger, and traveller) that I am, it was outraged not only that this was happening, but that it was happening in Sabah and on Mabul and Sipadan. Sabah is constantly marketing itself as an eco-destination and Mabul and Sipadan are marketed as pristine, world-class diving destinations.

Shark finning just doesn’t feature anywhere near any of these two images that Sabah Tourism spends a lot of money on projecting to the international dive and travel markets. I should add that some experts believe the sharks are not caught in or around the protected Mabul and Sipadan, but rather a triangular area between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, where marine life is prolific.

It doesn’t make the act of catching the sharks and finning them on Mabul any less atrocious though.

If you tell a friend who tells a friend who…

So I told the Journo, the Journo SMS’ed Datuk Masidi (Tourism, Culture & Environment Minister) and he replied (to the media at large), with this SMS:

“Mabul is not under the jurisdiction of Sabah Parks. However, since the island is a popular tourist destination especially as a transit point for diving in Sipadan, the alleged whaling and shark processing activities would in a way affect the tourism industry in the State.

Nature lovers and the global conservation community are fast becoming very influential lobbyists whose action could hurt the State’s tourism industry in the long run if they decide a boycott of Sabah to protest against activities perceived to be cruel to whales and sharks.

We need to be sensitive to the global views to protect our tourism industry if we want to continue attracting more foreign visitors to Sabah, especially from the high-end markets.

A small mistake or even inaction could have a major repercussion on the industry”

Daily Express picked it up on 31 January. The Journo did a bit more digging and on 16 February wrote an article for New Straits Times, which is a national newspaper, has some quasi-government connections and obviously make people in high places sit up and take note.

Especially when there’s a graphic picture of dead, bloodied sharks being finned accompanying it.

Shark finning in Mabul. From http://wetpixel.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=28365

So meetings were held and, I think, the only solid conclusion of those meetings were that it was a bloody shame that this got so much attention.

They obviously realise that all those divers in the forums who said they will avoid the very expensive Sipadan for as long as this goes on, could make a serious dent in the pile of tourism dollars Sipadan generates.

Yet there also money to be made from shark finning, of which the local communities probably get more than what they do from diving activities.

Poo in nice wrapping is still poo

Daily Express, on Tuesday, reported about the outcome of the meetings held by the Semporna Tourism Action Council (STAC) and tried to put a positive spin on it. STAC consists of members of the Tourism, Culture & Environment Ministry, Sabah Tourism, Sabah Parks and Sabah Fisheries. WWF and local tourism players also have a say in it, although how much is unknown.

It should be noted that Sabah Fisheries is not an environmental body – in fact, their directive is to get the most out of Sabah’s fish stocks. It seems as if they interpret “get the most” in dollar terms only and not longevity. Sustainable fishing however, suggests some form of conservation and limits, but I’m not sure that’s how they roll.

Anyway, Daily Express put the positive spin by titling the article “Ban shark finning activities” and in the opening paragraph they say how STAC has proposed a ban be placed on shark fishing and finning in Mabul to protect the diving industry.

But either this was said early in the meeting or, I think, they’re bargaining on the fact that most people don’t read to the bottom of articles. Near the end of the article they say that the council actually wants to restore the shark population, but for the purpose of seeing if shark finning and fishing is sustainable, which means they don’t have to ban it.

We all know shark finning is lucrative, but dwindling shark populations clearly indicate that it isn’t sustainable. Good luck with restoring the shark population while doing nothing about the finning.

But the cherry on the cake is when the article concludes with

“While thanking the public for their concern, the council felt that the issue had been blown out of proportion, which could effect the local communities that depend on tourism for their livelihood.”

Damn skippy it will influence your tourism. You want to kill and fin sharks in the very location where tourists and divers come to see those sharks alive in the wild!

The math is simple

You can’t have it both ways – either you protect the sharks and make money from people who will come again and again to see them, or you condone finning and kill them to make money from somebody who will eat the fins once.

One shark alive (with a conservative 20 year lifespan) viewed by only 1 diver per day (or per week for that matter) paying upwards of RM500 per day, or a once off payment of maybe RM100 per fin times about 5 or so fins per shark.

Here’s a handy adapted saying perfect for this situation:

You can dive with a shark many times, but you can only fin it once.

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