On average an estimated 22,000 tonnes of sharks are caught annually off Thailand for their fins – a delicacy in Chinese cuisine once enjoyed only by the rich, but now increasingly popular with the wealthier middle class.
Thanks to a group of environmental activists calling themselves the Dive Tribe, dozens of sharks were returned to the wild in the Gulf of Thailand recently, bought from animal markets or restaurants.
Among them were several young bamboo and black tip reef sharks which narrowly avoided ending up as shark fin soup – prized in particular by the Chinese who believe it boosts sexual potency.
Gwyn Mills, founder of Dive Tribe, laments the fact that the plight of sharks is largely overlooked compared to animals such as elephants and tigers.
He fears it may be only five or 10 years before the damage is irreversible.
“We are losing too many sharks. We can’t afford to take any more out of the ocean,” Mr Mills said.
Scientists blame the practice of shark-finning – slicing off the fins of live animals and then throwing them back in the water to die – for a worldwide collapse in populations of the predators, which have been swimming since the time of the dinosaurs.
The maritime conservation group Oceana estimates that up to 73 million sharks are finned each year around the world, depleting many populations by as much as 90 per cent.
Although the shark is portrayed as an insatiable man-eater in Steven Spielberg’s hit 1975 movie Jaws, naturalists say most species pose no danger to humans.
“Actually attacks on people are rare,” said Jean-Christophe Thomas, a scuba instructor involved in the shark release.
On Saturday, 60 sharks left their temporary home at the Underwater World Aquarium in the resort city of Pattaya in plastic bags filled with water. Loaded onto a boat, they were released one by one back into the wild.
“I was carrying the plastic bag and did not even notice when he left,” said Wayne Phillips, a lecturer in marine ecology at Mahidol University.
“But I like that. He was not given freedom. He took it. He was living in a tank, then in a plastic bag. He’s better here.”
While the release was a largely symbolic event designed to raise awareness, the stakes are real.
Environmentalists say that sharks, particularly the apex predators, play a vital role in the marine ecosystem.
“So if we protect the sharks, the rest of the reef will be protected,” said Phillips. “We need to make people realise how important sharks are.”
Environmentalists argue that sharks are slow to reproduce, making them unsuitable for commercial fishing.
Some types of shark species, including the great white and the hammerhead, are endangered, threatened or vulnerable, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Some countries are taking action.
The tiny Pacific nation of Palau declared the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2009, prompting similar moves by the Maldives and Honduras.
Taiwan, one of the world’s major shark catchers, is moving to tighten measures against hunting the predator while the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island is also seeking to ban shark-fishing.
For Dive Tribe and other shark lovers, the battle is only just beginning. – AFP