Sharks are fascinating creatures. Other than watching blockbuster movies like Jaws
or documentaries on Discovery Channel, it is likely that the only time we have the chance to get up close and personal with sharks is at aquatic centres.
Unless you don’t mind getting a real
close encounter swimming with sharks in open waters.
And coming face-to-face with a shark is not as uncommon as you think.
Out of around 400 shark species in the world, there are about 63 of them found in Malaysian waters alone
But have you ever wondered why we rarely hear of shark attacks here compared to other countries?
We spoke to Alvin Chelliah, a marine scientist currently working at Reef Check, to find out more about the shark species in Malaysia.
“The odds of being attacked by sharks in Malaysian waters are extremely slim. Many snorkel guides in Pulau Tioman will playfully tell you that our sharks are vegetarian. What they’re really trying to say is that the sharks in our waters will not try to eat you
,” he explained.
The main reason is because we don’t have seals or sea lions here which sharks are used to hunting
. It is also not in their nature to hunt larger mammals -- like humans -- on the surface of the water.
“Yes, we don’t have great whites. But though uncommon, we do have bull and tiger sharks, two of the top three species recorded to attack humans,” Alvin told us.
But before you ocean lovers out there freak out and cancel your next island trip, rest assured. These species tend to shy away from people, including divers and snorkelers. So just keep swimming, swimming, swimming!
If you actually take the time to find out more about the shark species in Malaysia, you’ll see that the wide variety that exist here spans from the largest whale shark, which migrates through our waters annually, to the illusive oceanic hammer heads and thrashers, all the way to the more common reef sharks like the blacktips, bamboo and coral cat sharks.
For Malaysians, our experience with sharks no doubt mostly involves activities that are either recreational or, sadly, gastronomical.
According to WWF Malaysia
, it is estimated that at least 100 million sharks are killed every year
for their fins, meat, leather, liver oil and cartilage.
A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations State of the Global Market for Shark Products
in 2015 revealed that Malaysia is actually ranked the world’s ninth largest producer of shark products and third largest importer in volumes
In Malaysia alone, 84% of the imported shark fins were consumed domestically with an average increase of 54% per year for ten years between 2004 and 2011!
That is an alarming volume in shark fin consumption because shark fin has been gradually introduced to newer market segments and not limited to just the Chinese population in recent years.
Alvin frequently conducts reef check surveys around Malaysia to monitor the health of coral reefs and abundance of indicator species.
He told us that based on the survey data in the past ten years, reef shark numbers alone have dropped
from an average of 6.68 sharks per 500m³ on the reef in 1997 to an average of only 0.03 sharks per 500m³ in 2016.
According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species
, up to 201 species of sharks are currently in danger of extinction
. That’s practically half of the entire shark species!
Many people may not know this, but things will not look good if all the sharks in the world are wiped out.
It might look it, but sharks actually play a super important role in the ecosystem.
Firstly, if sharks are eliminated, the marine ecosystem loses balance
“Sharks are apex predators sitting on top of the food chain in most marine ecosystems. In a balanced ecosystem, small herbivorous fish get eaten by carnivores that in turn get eaten by apex predators. So sharks help control the population of these smaller carnivores such as groupers, tuna, seals and dolphins,” Alvin explained.
“Remove sharks from the picture and the population of these smaller carnivores will increase, thus increasing the pressure on the population of herbivores such as parrot fish and rabbit fish.”
And when the population of herbivores decreases, the ocean will see excessive algae growth, which can cause major changes to the ecosystem and even irreversible phase shifts.
Secondly, sharks also help to keep the population of prey healthy
as they prey on the sick and weak, and feed on dead carcasses on the sea bed to prevent the spread of diseases and outbreaks.
Eliminating this purpose could lead to devastating consequences for the ocean population.
And finally, sharks contribute to the health of sea grass bed and other essential habitats
as they regulate the behaviour of prey species and prevent them from overgrazing simply through intimidation.
This was proven in Hawaii where scientists found that tiger sharks had a positive impact on the health of sea grass beds.
When tiger sharks roam the waters there, turtles would graze over a wider area and not overgraze one region and end up destroying quality sea grass.
Hence, the best thing for us to do is just to leave sharks alone!
Unfortunately, many people still don’t see the severity of consuming shark’s fin because they hide behind the curtain of culture, tradition and plain ignorance.
“People have a choice, but their decision dictates to some extent the fate of a majestic creature that plays an important role in keeping marine ecosystems in balance, the same marine ecosystems that many of us Malaysia rely on for food, coastal protection, jobs and income,” Alvin expressed.
“Is a bowl of soup really worth it?”
On the bright side, WWF Malaysia
reported early this year that over 80 hotels and restaurants have committed to stop serving shark fin dishes thanks to the active shark conservation movement in the last five years.
We certainly hope that more local and international businesses will join the global effort in shark conservation and protect the marine ecosystem.