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Counting Catsharks in Malaysia

Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Borneo has a shark problem. Over 100 species of sharks live in this region of the Coral Triangle, a region of highest marine biodiversity in the world. Not only do large sharks like hammerheads, tigers and bull sharks swim here, but also endemic species like the endangered Borneo shark, and small bamboo and catsharks.

Borneo has a shark problem, but it is not the kind of problem you might think.

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Finned Baby Hammerhead Sharks Photo Courtesy David McGuire

“How much is this?” The scalloped hammerhead shark hangs lifeless from my friend’s hand. “10 Ringgit’ replies the fishmonger, around $3 US a kilo. From the looks of the size of the baby scalloped hammerhead shark she weighs less than 1 Kilo, and may have never been born. Fishmongers chatter around us, singing out their wares at the Kota Kinabalu market in Malaysian Borneo, rhythmically advertising their catch ranging from squid, squirrel fish, blue spotted rays, yellow tail tuna and many, many species in between. The diversity is a macabre mirror of the resplendent coral reef we have just been diving at the world famous Sipadan Island as part of a Sabah shark count.

The baby shark is among a group of finned sharks including bamboo sharks, what looks like a mutilated reef shark, and a large bin of coral catsharks.  After searching for them in the wild, we came to investigate whether catsharks and bamboo sharks were being caught and sold in the local markets. We found catsharks with their fins piled alongside the stacked shark corpses. “How much are the fins?” Bertie asks the vendor.

“75 Ringgit.” the man tells us.  That is about 25 dollars wet weight for these tiny fins. A set of five could barely make a bowl of shark fin soup. Dried fins can sell for hundreds of dollars US per kilo, and even more for coveted fins like adult hammerhead sharks. Fishermen on the other hand make around 10 Ringgit/day. Even these small shark fins are big money for local fishermen. But who is eating the sharks?

Coral Catshark on Malaysian Reef Photo Courtesy Scubazoo
Coral Catshark on Malaysian Reef Photo Courtesy Scubazoo

We thank him and move on.

Selling shark fins and shark meat is legal in Malaysia; even for an IUCN red listed endangered species like the scalloped hammerhead. There are no laws against shark finning in Malaysia, and fresh fins, and the dried fins are ubiquitous. So too are finned shark carcasses from small sharks to the larger reef sharks we love to dive with. Is shark finning a problem, overfishing, the shark fin trade or all of the above? This is a common conundrum experienced by conservationists and even top government officials.

Part of our visit is to film a series called Borneo From Below, an online “Funservation” program on marine life produced by the local media production company ScubaZoo. With host Aaron “Bertie” Gekoski the series is adventurous, humorous, and at times like this, dead serious. As part of the series, we are continuing a fish market survey we assisted with the Malaysian non profit Tropical Reef and Conservation Centre (TRACC) to determine how common sharks and rays are being caught here. We are also diving and filming sharks and following the shark from the reef to the plate. This episode is about coral catsharks, but we are finding it more challenging to find them alive than dead.

Filming Dead Sharks and Fins, Borneo From Below Photo Courtesy David McGuire

There is no official shark fishery in Malaysia, but countless sharks are killed and consumed, many for their fins to make shark fin soup, and we are there to document it.

Malaysia does not manage shark catch or apply quotas on sharks. The Government publicly denies that there is a shark fishing or a shark fin problem in Malaysia, and claim regulations proposed by the Sabah Shark Protection Association to ban shark finning are not needed. The volume of fins and dead sharks we have documented in Kota Kinabalu and other fish markets, and the astonishing decline in observations of wild sharks in the shark count belie this denial. Preliminary data collected by citizen science divers and in a study by TRAFFIC/WWF, indicate there has been a rapid decline of sharks in Malaysian waters.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in the United Nations report entitled State of the Global Market for Shark Products, Malaysia ranked ninth as the world’s largest shark producer and third largest importer in terms of volume a few years ago.  Between 2000 and 2011, Malaysia recorded average annual shark fin imports of 1,172 tons, worth US$3.2 million (approximately 14 million Ringgit) and average annual shark fin exports 238 tons, worth US$902,000 (approximately RM3.9 million). In many cases Malaysia’s sharks have followed an international trend, declining as much as 90- 95% for many species off Malaysian Reefs.

Increasing tourism for seafood is also creating a demand for many exotic species, not just shark fin. Visitors from China, Japan and Korea are visiting and consuming vast amounts of seafood at a much-discounted rate, including shark fin soup. As documented in the Borneo From Below episode, shark fin soup is on the menu everywhere.

Dried Shark Fins for Sale, Photo Courtesy David McGuire
Dried Shark Fins for Sale, Photo Courtesy David McGuire

Many visitors are packing up cases of dried sea cucumbers, scallops, seahorses and other dried products to take home to China. One street vendor is selling a set of dried hammerhead fins for 1200 Ringgit ($400 US).  Live fish in restaurant’s aquariums host sorry looking Maori Wrasse, Bumpheaded Parrotfish and other protected species. Sabah waters are literally being eaten out of house and home to accommodate food tourism. Although we see the fins and the bodies for sale, curiously, we are having a hard time finding a restaurant serving cat sharks. Where does the meat go? Returning to the fish market we ask the same vendor if he sold the sharks we saw a few days before. After a few days unsold fish are sold and rendered into fish balls the vendor tells us. The real value is in the fin.

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Live reef fish on sale in a popular restaurant, Kota Kinabalu Photo Courtesy David McGuire
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Sabah Major Destination for Seafood Tourism in Asia, Photo Courtesy David McGuire

Coral catsharks are a beautiful ground-shark endemic to the Coral Triangle region. These innocuous sharks are nocturnal, and stay sheltered beneath rocky ledges and coral caves. They are a shy, unassuming shark that feeds on invertebrates like crabs and octopus. The government is partly right that actual shark finning is not an issue. Most developing nations bring in the entire fish, but sharks are being killed at an unsustainable rate and the fin trade is rampant. Perhaps these small sharks would not have been captured at all if there were no demand for the fin.

Although we had a hard time locating these beautiful little sharks in the Marine Park at Pulau Gaya, Kota Kinabalu, we did find them on a dive survey on Mabul Island with our partner Scuba Junkies and off a hidden reef with Diverse Borneo. The dive tourists accompanying us were excited and ecstatic to see a living shark and their cameras clogged the cave entrance. Divers come to the Semporna Region to see sharks, sea turtles and healthy coral ecosystems. An economic estimate values one reef shark at US $815,000 to the local economy through dive tourism each year. That’s a lot of money, far more value than the fisherman or the market will ever see selling dead sharks.

Borneo has a shark problem; the sharks are disappearing, and with them a significant percentage of their tourism economy.  No sharks, no divers, no seafood, no tourists.

Perhaps the economic study and survey results will convince government leaders to stop the denial and realize sharks are more valuable alive than dead.