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Shark Finning: The Dark Side of Malaysian Paradise

Shark Finning: The Dark Side of Malaysian Paradise

by: Tommy Birn


The Coral Triangle: Michael Rubenstein

Malaysia is well known for being one of the most biologically diverse countries on earth, ranking 12th in the world according to the National Biodiversity Index. It has more reef fish diversity than anywhere else on the planet, containing 37% of known coral reef fish species,

and managing marine protected areas that cover 248,613 hectares. Sipadan alone is home to hundreds of coral species and more than 3,000 species of fish.

Malaysian waters form part of the Coral Triangle, a 6 million km2 marine region that houses over 500 species of reef-building corals. This unique ecosystem holds tremendous importance to the world’s marine biodiversity, with more coral, fish, and critters than anywhere else on earth. It is also home to some 67 shark species, demonstrating just how significant this region is to the world’s marine ecosystems.

Threats Facing the Coral Triangle


Shark Market in Malaysia: Lawrence Belleni

While Malaysian waters, and the rest of the Coral Triangle, are critical to marine life, the area faces increasing threats from overfishing, community disruption, tourism, pollution, and climate change. Overfishing and shark finning are a big part of the problem. Sharks are particularly vulnerable to the situation due to the high demand for shark fins and certain biological characteristics including having few young, maturing late and having long life spans.

They play a vital role in the ecosystem, yet several shark species are facing a decline due to unregulated fishing. Some of the most commonly taken shark species in Malaysia, according to reports by SEAFDEC, include the Spadenose Shark, Brownbanded Bamboo Shark, Spottail Shark and Scalloped Hammerhead. They are typically taken by trawl and gillnet fisheries, as well as purse seine, longline, and others.

While Malaysian fishers do not officially practice shark finning, the evidence would suggest otherwise. Shark fins are still traded today since consuming sharks, or their fins are not considered illegal. The country has been a longtime importer of shark products and you regularly see sharks sold in local markets. So, not only are they contributing to the decline of local shark populations, but also of those further afield.

Just this year several images surfaced online, demonstrating clear evidence of shark fishing in Malaysia, including those that appeared on social media and those taken by Swedish divers. The shocking pictures showcasing carcasses and bloody waters in one of the world’s most famous diving spots will not do anything to help local tourism, on which much of the population depends on income.

The heartbreaking images clearly show the cruel practice taking place and something must be done to raise awareness of the issue and put pressure on the government to make the necessary changes to help conserve the shark populations in these waters.


Massive Shark Finning: Rikke F. Johannessen

According to WWF-Malaysia, the real problem is that Malaysians don’t seem to care that much about sharks. Their relationship with them is mostly gastronomical or recreational, so many are more concerned about eating sharks, or at least their fins. Educating the local population will prove necessary to shift perceptions and bring about change.

The Need for Conservation

Conserving Malaysia’s marine biodiversity is of vital importance. It faces a threat from numerous sources and while the country has taken steps to improve the situation, more needs to be done to reduce shark fishing activities. There is a noticeable absence of laws that help to manage, conserve and protect sharks in the country. So long as no laws ban the practice, shark fishing and finning will continue to take place.

Seven species of sharks and rays have recently been classed as endangered and will thus receive better protection, yet not all sharks will enjoy the same levels of protection. With 67 common species often seen in the markets, it’s clear that sharks are continually fished incidentally or in mixed fisheries. Sabah is considering putting in place a blanket ban since it ‘s hard to protect only certain species from fishers who may not be up to speed on the protected species.


Drying Shark Fins: Mohd Halimi Abdullah

Banning this practice is of critical importance, not only for the sake of the sharks but also for the economy that is so dependent on the marine ecological system that currently exists. People need to be aware of how their actions will affect their local community and future generations.

Malaysians should place shark conservation under state protection with a focus on expanding tourism around shark habitats since the Federal Government is currently making no attempt to improve the situation. Doing so will help to tackle the issue, conserving the environment without putting the local’s livelihood at risk.

About the Author:

Tommy Birn is a 37 year old dreamer who still thinks that words and good actions can change the world. He was born in Serbia, currently stuck somewhere in Asia, where he tries to explain how killing sharks just because of few spoons of soup is not something we should be proud of. He is also a father of two beautiful angels, passionate scuba diver and traveler.

Alex Lewis-Dorer

Alex Lewis-Dorer is a 27 year old activist. Having watched The Cove during its initial release and learning about the capture practices and the dangers of captivity, she felt compelled to stand up and voice her concerns to others. Since then she has dedicated her time and energy to working towards educating others about ocean conversation. In 2012 Alex joined forces with Wendy Brunot to have a lone killer whale named Shouka, moved to an alternate marine park to be with other orcas. Following the news of a planned Beluga Whale import, Alex hosted a protest in Atlanta In July 2012 together with Free the Atlanta 11 and GARP which attracted significant attention to the issues behind such an initiative. Alex has also played a large part in being a strong voice against Marineland, Canada, holding a demo at the facility in May 2014 in honor of Kiska, Canada’s last captive whale. She has dedicated much of her time to bringing attention to Marineland’s suffering animals. She also voices her concerns over many other captive marine faculties and lends her hand on campaigns regarding this issue. Alex’s love is not limited to cetaceans – she sees the beauty in all marine life. She is excited to be part of the movement that will end captivity for all marine mammals. Alex is also a proud team member for Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project.

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A begrudging acceptance and the Taiji cultural tradition of dolphin ranching?

There’s been some well deserved cheers following the announcement that the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) have voted to comply with a demand from the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) that Japanese facilities stop buying dolphins from drive hunts, or face expulsion.

While I happily join in the chorus, my good cheer is tempered by the knowledge that JAZA member facilities begrudgingly ceded to WAZA’s demands, and the fishers of Taiji have no intention of giving up on the Japanese industry of providing live dolphins to whoever will buy.

JAZA chairman, Kazutoshi Arai, was quoted as saying: “We do not think it is cruel to take wild dolphins…but as we have reached this kind of conclusion in relation to WAZA, we need to steer (our policy) toward breeding,”

An abundance of markets still exist for the dolphins captured in Taiji.  Australia for Dolphins, states that approximately 40% of the dolphins caught for the live dolphin market are slated for Japanese facilities, leaving a majority going to overseas zoos and aquariums.

Dolphins captured in Taiji have been exported to  China, Korea, Ukraine, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

Buyers of wild caught dolphins still exist among the WAZA membership and the executive of the world body have enforcement work to do. WAZA cannot selectively enforce its mandate that requires all 50 member countries and territories to “adhere to policies that prohibit participating in cruel and non-selective methods of taking animals from the wild.”

Australia for Dolphins chief executive Sarah Lucas was quoted in The Guardian as saying that Australia For Dolphins “would continue its legal action against WAZA because other members of the organization continue to buy dolphins from Taiji and other inhumane hunts.”

Captive breeding takes place in a small number of Japanese zoos and aquariums, representing an estimated 12 to 13 percent of the captive dolphin population in Japan. Many of the facilities lack separate breeding pools to accommodate nursing females; a clear indication that those facilities are substandard and inappropriate for the ongoing care of dolphins.

The Taiji cultural tradition of dolphin ranching?

In an article from the New Straits Times (Reuters, 21 May, 2015), Taiji mayor Kazutaka Sangen told reporters that consideration was being given to set up a dolphin breeding centre in a partitioned area of the notorious cove. Sangen was quoted as saying: “We plan to protect our fishermen, who have authority from both the nation and the local government.”  “We believe it can become the world’s main provider. I believe in 10 years our town will have changed its role in all this.”

Sangen added. “My justification is that the government recognizes the catches and so does the prefecture, there’s absolutely nothing wrong.”

The majority of the Japanese people, and most assuredly- their protectionist government, do not believe that dolphins and other cetaceans are suffering in captivity and there is little chance that they will suddenly develop an empathy for the dolphins and the meagre existence that captivity affords them.

We can’t shame the Japanese people into changing how they feel about dolphins and whales. They’ll resent the insult and it will push them away. We can pressure their government but… historically, when pushed, they look for a lessor path of resistance to do whatever they want.

We need to patiently and politely help the the citizenry of Japan to understand the depth of emotion that dolphins possess, that they enjoy their freedom and can only truly thrive as they should, in their natural home.

I suspect that as time goes on and other nations acknowledge the injustice that is being done and change their laws to reflect the recognition that as intelligent and emotional beings, dolphins and whales deserve to live as they should; the people of those nations who’ve lagged behind in that understanding… will shame themselves.