Sharks alive!

A Leopard Shark swims past seaweed in an aquarium.

‘BETTER dead than alive’ has been the cry of those who have yearly caught an estimated 50 to 100 million sharks, butchering them on board their vessels to remove their fins, and then casting their live bodies overboard to suffer a hideous death.

In the Coral Triangle of Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia, there are very many shark species. In Malaysian waters there are 68 species, of which 50 can be regularly seen in Sabah’s seas, to include one freshwater species in the Kinabatangan River. These findings were declared by Southeast Asian Fisheries Centre senior researcher Dr Ahmad Ali, who is attached to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in his address to the ‘Sharks and Rays Forum’ last June in Kota Kinabalu. There, he urged the Ministry of Defence to step up its coastal patrols to police Sabahan and Sarawakian territorial waters to deter illegal catches of shark by foreign fishing boats. The fact that he had seen sharks landed and butchered at Tanjung Manis, Sarikei, appalled him.

Shark attacks on humans

Of the 300 species of shark worldwide, only four have been observed in human attacks – the Great White, Tiger, Bull, and Oceanic Whitetip. Rest assured none of these have been seen in Malaysian waters, where only four reports of attacks have been recorded in the last 100 years. Often shark attacks are occasioned by the fish mistakenly catching the wrong prey with most humans suffering lacerations or, at worst, the loss of a limb.

Worldwide, there are on average 70 shark attacks a year with most occurring in American waters. Few are fatal. In terms of probability, one stands a 3,000 times greater chance of drowning.

Sharks near Malaysian coral reefs

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Most sharks are inquisitive creatures, the friendliest being the 12-metre long White Shark, which feeds on plankton. The Hammerhead Shark is also present in deeper waters. The most common species of shark living in the shallower waters near coral reefs are the Whitetip, Blacktip, Grey Reef, Leopard, and Bamboo.

If snorkelling or scuba diving near coral reefs in East Malaysian waters, one may expect to see one or two of these species, especially at the shark ‘centre’ of Pulau Sipadan.

Complex predators

Despite their considerable size, Basking Sharks are actually just plankton eaters.

Sharks rely heavily on their various senses to seize their prey and have more sensory systems than the latter. Usually swimming down-current of their prey, their exceptional scent glands can pick up from afar fish proteins, excreta, and mucus. Fish vibrations and sounds can identify a single fish with even more vibrations and sounds from a shoal of fish. These are identified by sensory cells within the shark’s upper body and with its inner ear located above its eyes. Other sensory organs can detect even the weakest of electrical signals emitted by the muscular movements of its prey, hence perhaps why surfers are at risk.

Most shark-species hunt in daylight if in search of plankton-eating fish in surface waters. Those night feeding sharks follow the nightly migrations of squid as the latter move upwards towards the sea surface. Like a snorkeler wearing flippers, a shark’s tail fin produces a low energy rate and is used to accelerate quickly towards its prey by following its slipstream. Formula 1 racing cars use the same trick when overtaking.

Staggering findings

The Sabah Shark and Ray Report 2018 report was based on the findings at the aforementioned meeting in Sabah. It was most appropriately dedicated to the memory of the late Dr Steve Oakley, a long-time Sabah and Sarawak shark conservationist. Many friends in Kuching and Kota Kinabalu will well remember his marine biological conservation work and that, too, of his wife Kathy and their family.

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Together with a previous 2014 report from the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, this report highlights Malaysia as “among the three global hotspots where the biodiversity of sharks is seriously threatened”. It seems that large sharks are targeted together with a sudden increase in shark fin imports for domestic consumption.

Malaysia is the largest importer of shark fins, taking 72 per cent of the Asean market. Thus Malaysia is a culpable nation in the decline of shark numbers globally. The report, based on the evidence collected, suggests that Malaysian waters are overfished and that sharks are specifically targeted, as well as being taken accidently through occasional bycatches, when fishermen are legally trying to catch other forms of fish by nets or longlining.

This report fully supports shark ecotourism ventures and encourages the growth of responsible diving and snorkelling centres for people to see sharks in their coral reef habitats, as well as to educate people about marine conservation and preservation.

In Sabah, economists have estimated that dive tourism services benefit local businesses to the tune of RM67.5 million a year, of which RM11.4 million goes to the salaries for employees. Sabah, recognising the existence of sharks in the biodiversity of its coral reefs, has gazetted yet more marine protected areas, to include the recent Tun Mustapha Marine Park. This report’s conclusion detailed many recommendations for careful perusal and action.

Climate change

The coastal waters of the South China and Sulu Seas are ideal locations for sharks, in water temperatures of between 20 and 26 degrees Celsius. This year, more than in any other summer, an increasing number of shark species are being seen in British waters. Years ago, as a youth, I well remember swimming off Cornwall’s beaches amongst Basking sharks, which were once hunted for their prized liver oil. As plankton eaters, and despite their considerable size, they were no threat to me.

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However, research marine biologists at Southampton University’s School of Oceanographic Sciences have predicted that sharks from warmer waters such as the Mediterranean Sea will migrate to UK waters in the next 30 years.

In the baking heatwave of this summer with temperatures well exceeding 30 degrees Celsius, without a single drop of rain for over 50 days, shoals or pods of 40 species of shark have been observed by fishermen and in aerial photographs off the Cornish coast and in UK waters.

Even the Great Whitehead shark of ‘Jaws’ film fame has been spotted. This shark’s favourite food is seal, and seals abound off the rocky shorelines in parts of Cornwall.

I do not think that I shall be around in 30 years’ time but at the present rate of climate change, when summer seawaters this year have reached 18 to 20 degrees Celsius, sooner rather than later then, Hammerheads, Big Eye Threshers, Sand Tigers, Blacktips, and Copper sharks will be frequent visitors.

From 1785 to the present, only 17 shark attacks, with one fatality, have been reported in British waters. This may well change, for certain species of shark only attack humans, when threatened, as their form of self-protection or by the mistaken identity of their real prey – fish.

I, for one, admire their size, swimming skills and sheer beauty but, like all swimmers, when I see an offshore dorsal shark fin cutting through the sea, just in case, I exit the sea immediately, be it in British or Malaysian waters.

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