The disturbing discovery by a Phuket News reader of the selling of endangered hammerhead sharks in Kata market has been exasperated by the shocking realisation that the practice is not ‘technically’ illegal.
Gwyn Mills, CEO of Pattaya-based environmental organisation Dive Tribe, explained that the laws in Thailand regarding fishing practices are murky at best.
“It largely depends on where they’ve been caught... There are harsher penalties if they’ve been caught in a National Park as opposed to open waters for example.”
The problem lies in the fact that fishing behaviour is often not recorded in Thailand, with fishermen and fishing crews often failing to submit their behaviour and locations to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
CITES is an international agreement between governments charged with ensuring that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
Another problem is that statistics as to the number of sharks are very hard to accurately record. However, it is estimated that the hammerhead population in the Atlantic Ocean has radically declined by over 95 per cent in the past 30 years.
The main cause of this drop-off is over-fishing, due to the rise in demand for shark fins from markets in East Asia, especially China, of which hammerheads are the most popular species.
Tony Andrews, the Regional Manager of PADI Asia Pacific diving society, however, believes that the sharks featured in this photo were not caught for their fins, and will probably end up as decorative display pieces in local Thai restaurants.
“I know it’s horrible to say, but in the fisherman’s defence, this is not down to the finning trade. Sharks that are being finned are normally finned at sea with the carcass being thrown overboard, to ensure that the boat has more room for storing the fins.”
David Roe, a Marine Conservation Officer from Project AWARE, who organises divers to tackle major ocean conservation issues ‘Sharks in Peril’ and ‘Marine Debris’, agrees that it’s incredibly important to make the distinction between shark fishing and shark finning, at least from a legal perspective.
“With shark finning, the valuable fins are kept while the less valuable shark body is discarded at sea to leave room for more valuable animals.
"If they sell the body for meat and the fins for the shark fin soup trade, this would be seen as making full use of the animal, as outlined in the UN’s Food and Agriculture’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing.”
So, although the practice is not illegal, it is according to Mr Roe and many market shoppers, nonetheless heartbreaking.
This is why Project AWARE is working to have hammerhead sharks listed under CITES Appendix II at the Conference of Parties in Thailand, March 2013, which would lead to enforced protection of the mammal.
Mr Roe believes that resistance to listing any more than the three sharks currently listed on the appendix is due to their high economic value.
If their bid is successful, it would not necessarily prevent such shocking scenes in the marketplace, as the listing only places control over international, not domestic trade, but Mr Roe sees such a listing as a major step forward in the conservation of the species.
The biggest step Mr Roe, Mr Andrews and many other campaigners see as needing to take place, is a change in attitude and that might, according to some reports, need to start at the very top.
A petition by change.org is gathering steam, calling for the removal of the Asian representative of CITES, Dr Giam Choo Hoo, on grounds of conflict of interest owing to his purported links to the shark finning industry.
For his part, Dr Giam, a Singaporean, has said that the attempted ban of the shark finning trade is rooted in cultural bias and is in fact discriminatory. For him, the eating of shark fin soup is a delicacy, and a tradition that has great importance and significance for many around the region.
Regardless, Project AWARE and PADI have joined forces and are taking action against the shark finning trade by raising awareness amongst the global dive community about issues threatening sharks, and turning divers – those most in contact with the animals – into champions of shark protection.
Mr Mills of Dive Tribe is also keen to continue the good work he started in Pattaya here on the island, “We’ll be opening a base in Phuket to raise awareness and educate about how the shark finning and fishing trade is worsening the plight of the sharks.
"We’ll also visit universities and run courses.”
Overall, it is imperative to remain patient, according to Project AWARE’s Mr Roe, who believes change will come, albeit slowly.
“It’s important to remember that the biggest issue with shark fishing is that currently, in most cases, it is unsustainable and unmanaged.
“We are calling for properly managed, science-based shark fisheries. We are also campaigning for a ‘fin’s naturally attached on landing policy’ so as to end the cruel and wasteful practice of finning.”
Photo courtesy of Sylvie Yaffe - Endangered hammerhead sharks at Kata market.