Dive Tribe Sponsored by SSI (Scuba Schools International) and working with Scuba With Mike, Save Koh Tao Group, and Dr Wayne Phillips of Mahidol University, organised the largest co-ordinated shark release in Asia, which took place on Saturday 3 September.
The release occured in Pattaya and Koh Tao.
The aim of the Great Shark Release is not to suddenly fill the tourist-packed waterways with close relatives of that infamous Hollywood man-eating monster Jaws, it is in fact an effort to highlight the desperate plight of these magnificent creatures and go some way to explaining their importance for humankind.
The Great Shark Release is an idea dreamt up by Gwyn Mills, the British founder of Dive Tribe, who has lived in Thailand for 11 years and made Pattaya his base two years ago.
As he states, “We have a big problem and all the dive stores around Thailand have been complaining that they see no sharks on dives anymore.”
For example, Sylvia Gogh, a PADI Course Director who lived and worked in Thailand until 1999 and returned to dive the Similans, expressed dismay that her group did not see a single shark over a two-week diving holiday. “Twelve years ago you just had to put your head in the water and there they were, swimming majestically. What has happened?” she asked.
The basic answer is overfishing. Dive Tribe keeps a watchful eye on the industry and Mills said he is exasperated by the extent of shark fishing taking place not just around Thailand but the entire southeast Asian region. Sharks are captured and killed almost solely for their fins, which are used in soups and are a delicacy particularly favoured by the Chinese.
An estimated 78 million sharks are killed each year for their fins and flesh. Considering the fact that shark fins and meat contains up to 42 times the medically acceptable level of mercury for human consumption it is surprising the trade can possibly continue, as the meat is potentially harmful to health.
A further 26 million sharks are killed each year for a variety of other reasons.
Tests in Thailand and Taiwan show some sharks contain mercury which exceeds the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended levels. The United States and Australian authorities have also warned the public and particularly pregnant women and young children against the consumption of shark meat.
As Gwyn notes, “If we remove all the apex predators from our oceans this will upset the natural balance and can lead to a catastrophic chain of events. Humans rely on the ocean for the oxygen we breathe and 70 percent of that oxygen is produced by phytoplankton and algae. Sharks are vital in the food chain because they remove many of the small fish and crustaceans that eat this phytoplankton and algae. It is claimed by scientists that sharks have kept this balance for 420 million years.”
Gwyn goes on to paint a depressing and much under-publicised picture: “In less than 10 to 20 years we humans have wiped out 90 percent of some species of sharks from our oceans.
This means the phytoplankton eaters will increase which will then lead to a breakdown in the marine environment.”
As he states, “It’s just not possible to remove the apex predator and think that everything will be OK.”
With their slow gestation period and the fact sharks that have live young (Viviparous) and only have very few pups, it soon becomes apparent they cannot recover from this kind of intensive fishing.
“In the 1980’s there was a moratorium on Atlantic Cod as stocks had been severely depleted. We are now 30 years on and those stock have still not recovered. Cod spawn hundreds of fish at a time so what chance do sharks have?”
“It is past time that Thailand put in some legal protection of our sharks, as we know for a fact that numbers have steeply declined over the last few years and illegal fishing continues in many of our National Marine Parks.”
Thailand permits the sale and supply of shark fins to the Chinese markets and the public can sample shark dishes in many restaurants around the country, including a number in Pattaya.
Elsewhere, the governments of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Marshall Islands, Honduras, Maldives, Bahamas, Chile, the province of Ontario in Canada and the American states of Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington are among the first to have enacted legislation prohibiting the sale, possession, distribution and trade of the much sought-after shark fins and their by-products. The Malaysian state of Sabah is moving in this direction as well.
Malaysia is ranked 10th among the world’s top shark-catching nations, yet Sabah fishermen and divers have noticed the impact on the region’s ocean ecosystems. Malaysian media suggests the state government of Sabah is planning to impose a ban on shark fishing by 2012, becoming the nation’s first state to do so.
Recently Dive Tribe was able to convince the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Bangkok to remove sharks fin from its menu. Gwyn claims, “No one has the right to remove a species and then hide behind the fact that it’s their culture. Thankfully the management of the Conrad could see that consuming sharks fins is now sensibly viewed as politically incorrect and in very poor taste.
“By removing sharks fin from their menu they have shown the market they are working on becoming a sustainable and eco-aware company and showing the rest of the hotel market the way forward.”
The Dive Tribe release program will help shark conservation by putting a few animals back into the ocean where they belong, but the event is primarily designed to raise awareness that sharks are not food, or pets.
“We raised funds from all around the world and let the public know that Thai sharks are fast becoming extinct,” Gwyn said. “With these funds we purchased sharks from local restaurants and pet shops and then placed them in our holding tanks ready for the release on the 3rd September.
Gwyn understands there is a moral dilemma that purchasing sharks from restaurants and other businesses is actually helping to fuel the trade.
Gwyn says, “Firstly we will be buying the sharks all in one day so no extra stock will be bought by retailers. They do not know we are coming and this is just a yearly operation. You cannot fuel a trade in just one day a year. Also, these sharks are as good as dead so why not RF tag them release them back into their natural habitat and give them a second chance, and by doing this let the public know that sharks are friends not food?”
Talking of the local shark fin restaurant trade, Gwyn says, “We are urging people to say ‘No’ to sharks fin soup. Please walk away from restaurants that serve sharks or have them on display.
We ask the public not to keep sharks as pets or on display in bars, clubs or restaurants; it’s cruel and unethical.”
Offering a positive view, Gwyn adds, “Sharks are potentially great for the economy. Scuba diving, which is now the second largest sport in Thailand next to golf, is reliant on repeat customers. Divers will come back to a dive destination if they have exciting dives. Ask any diver what constitutes an exciting dive and most will say, ‘Seeing Sharks’.”
A study by PEW in Palau quantified the economic benefits of the shark-diving industry and found that its worth far exceeds that of shark fishing. The estimated annual value to the tourism industry of an individual reef shark frequenting these sites was an estimated US$179,000 (5.37 million baht) or US$1.9 million (57 million baht) over its lifetime. In contrast, a single reef shark would only bring an estimated US$108 (3,250 baht) if it was on your plate.
The release on September 3rd went well and a few minor problems were overcome and 62 Sharks were released back into their natural habitat.
The day was a huge success and media attention for the event went all around the world from Thailand ,Indonesia , Dubai , Spain and the UK.
We started loading the sharks on to trucks at 7.30 am and by 9 am all sharks were on board the 2 vessels of Adventure Divers and Scuba with Mike and all the press and divers were ready to set sail to an undisclosed islands off of Pattaya.
By 11.15 am the first Black tip was taken down to 6 meters and released from it's plastic environment into the ocean.
To see the shark swimming freely was such a good feeling says Gwyn. We know that our group the other organisation, friends and sponsors that helped have done the right thing.
The shark release symbolised freedom and the photos and video we got of the release will provide testament to that very fact.
Sharks need our help and only we as diver and as a collective organisation have the power to bring awareness to the public.
Since the releae the media has been positive and we have had talks with many organisations about setting up Shark Safe areas in Thailand.
Today in Koh Tao the Governor is trying to put into place such an area.
Will we be doing it next year ?
The answer is a resounding YES, if sharks need our help then this project will continue.
DIVE TRIBE WOULD LIKE TO THANK THE SPONSORS AND FRIENDS OF SHARKS FOR MAKING THIS HAPPEN