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Painting a brighter future for an endangered species

“Steven Spielberg has a lot to answer for,” German expat Holger Schwab quips when asked why the worldwide perception of sharks is predominantly negative.

By Ben Tirebuck

Sunday 31 January 2021, 10:00AM

Holger is owner of Phuket-based Sea Bees Diving and has been a keen diver himself for over 35 years. Along with fellow German expat dive instructor Alex Loew, they have been alarmed to see shark numbers declining off Phuket waters for many years now.

The waters around Phuket are home to blacktip reef, whitetip reef, grey reef, bamboo, nurse, bull, and whale sharks but their numbers are diminishing rapidly. Leopard sharks have disappeared completely.

As a result, Holger and Alex established The Fin Arts in 2017, a Phuket-based social enterprise that displays and sells shark sculptures, each one handpainted by its growing network of local and international artists, with a percentage of proceeds going to shark and marine conservation projects.

A workshop was recently set up in Chalong affording local resident artists Sunanta Nualsomsri and her sister Saowaluck the creative space to produce the impressive sculptures and it is hoped providing more direct access to the general public will help continue to raise awareness.

The sculptures come in three sizes: 30-centimetre sharks cast in polyresin to decorate desks and shelves; and 100- and 150-centimetre sharks made from fibreglass, statement pieces that The Fin Arts uses to catch eyes at conventions. All designs can be customised in a bespoke manner to the customer’s requirements.

The inspiration for this was provided by the Elephant Parade on display in Chiang Mai in 2017. In a similar vein to The Fin Arts, Elephant Parade exhibits decorated elephant statues to raise awareness of the need for elephant conservation.

The objective is to bring the message of shark conservation efforts into everyday lives, into homes and offices in order to create a conversation, raise awareness and educate people.

“The sculptures are different, unusual,” says Holger. “They often achieve the desired effect of initiating a conversation that can result in a positive impact.”

Shark Guardian is the main conservation project The Fin Arts supports. Its focus is to both educate and establish a meaningful dialogue about these important creatures of the deep. The UK-registered charity collaborates with marine biologists and shark experts to share data and research, visits schools across the world to educate the next generation about the plight of sharks, and petitions and lobbies governments.

Education the key

Although Holger’s reference to Hollywood mogul Spielberg’s role in depicting sharks as villains courtesy of his 1975 blockbuster film Jaws was tongue-in-cheek, there is a simultaneous tone of definite lament and, for him, education is the key driver in effecting change.

“A dishonest person who uses clever means to cheat others out of something of value,” reads the synonym entry for ‘shark’ in the Merriam-Webster thesarus. Over the years humans have achieved a staggeringly inaccurate and unfair job of debasing and labeling the species and ensuring that the very word regularly conjures up negative, dangerous or threatening connotations when used in common vernacular.

It’s why education on a broader scale is imperative, says Holger. First and foremost it is correcting the misconception that sharks are a danger to humans and likely to attack.

“In 35 years of diving I have only ever heard of one serious shark attack on a diver, which occurred in Egypt several years ago,” he says. Indeed, you are far more likely to die from a popping champagne cork, being struck by lightning or a falling coconut from a tree.

“Humans are not part of a shark’s food-chain,” adds Holger, stressing that rare attacks are usually the shark mistaking a human for food, taking a “test bite” but then releasing.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything it is the precarious yet crucial balance between humans and nature. The importance sharks play in the eco-system of the ocean can not be understated, says Holger.

“As apex predators, sharks play a crucial role in maintaining marine biodiversity,” he says. “You take the shark out of the equaton and it undermines the whole structure. The consequence of their dwindling numbers and potential disappearance altogether would be devastating,” adding a critical reminder that 70% of the earth’s oxygen comes from the ocean.

Estimates state that between 100-120 million sharks are killed every year. A third of all sharks are threatened with extinction in the near future.

Unregulated fishing, bycatch, a continued demand for shark fins for soup and teeth and jaws for souvenirs, and contact with marine debris, such as plastics and discarded “ghost nets” are the main contributing factors to these statistics.

The fishing industry has become much more aggressive and greedy, says Holger, with an increasing number of vessels taking to the waters each year, often operating in illegal territories and utilising illegal methods.

As the demand for fish increases to record numbers, particularly across the Pacific, unregulated fishing is becoming an increasing problem. Unscrupulous methods adopted with longline fishing in particular where the actual size of nets are decreased below the regulated requirement means dolphins, seabirds, sea turtles, and sharks are unintentionally being caught and killed.

The shark fin market is also a major issue, despite restrictions being introduced and consumption dropping. Used for soup at auspicious occasions typically in China and its associated territories, it is estimated that 75 million sharks are killed for this barbaric practice every year. Shark fin soup is still also widely available in Thailand.

“The sad thing is that a shark’s fin is merely cartilage and therefore offers very little in terms of taste,” says Holger.

The global pandemic has had a negative impact on everything and conservation and the environment are no different, according to Holger.

“The conversation is about nothing but COVID-19 now,” rues Holger. “Any prior focus and importance placed on conservation efforts, the environment, pollution, plastic waste has now been completely overshadowed. COVID has not been good for enviromental issues at all.”

COVID also meant a roadshow to raise awareness in Switzerland last year where 50 large shark sculptures would be exhibited had to be scrapped, likewise attendance at boat show events in Germany and Singapore. The lack of tourists visiting Phuket has meant less and less people visiting the workshop.

Still, Holger remains upbeat and confident that things can and will change, in the short and long-term.

“We will continue our efforts in trying to help protect and conserve these beautiful creatures who are so fundamental in so many ways,” he says.

For more information, visit thefinarts.com and www.facebook.com/thefinarts. The Fin Arts’ shark sculptures are available through their website or at the Sea Bees Diving centre in Chalong. If you are an artist and are interested in a collaboration, get in touch at alex@thefinarts.com or on 080 143 5472.

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