Asia Dive Expo: Christine Ward-Paige reveals shocking new statistics on shark depletion

BYM Marine Environment News 21 Apr 08;

ADEX 2008 Organiser call for Asians to play their part in preserving the species by avoiding shark fin soup

A visiting speaker at Asia Dive Expo 2008 from Canada-based Global Shark Assessment revealed shocking new statistics on shark depletion figures worldwide.

According to Christine Ward-Paige, a researcher with the group, the situation is exceedingly grim with shark populations globally being driven to the verge of extinction mainly by the highly profitable practice of shark finning to supply Asian dinner tables and wedding banquets, with the principle demand coming from mainland China.

Ms. Ward-Paige highlighted several studies by Dr. Ransom Myers, founder of Global Shark Assessment which indicated alarming drop offs in global populations of various shark species. One study¹ found that the Oceanic Whitetip shark native to the Gulf of Mexico had declined by more than 99% since 1950. Now almost forgotten, the species was once one of the most commonly caught sharks in the region.

Another study³ found that Pelagic (deep water, ocean) sharks in the Northwest Atlantic are also in serious trouble with recent declines ranging from 40% in mako sharks up to almost 90% in hammerhead sharks. In a third study, Dr. Myer’s found a 90% decline globally in the world's predatory fish, including sharks in the Gulf of Thailand².

Ms. Ward-Paige’s group provided statistics to underwater filmmaker Rob Stewart for his film Sharkwater, which made a huge impact on Singaporean moviegoers when it was released recently.

Said Ms. Ward-Paige, “What is not realised is that Sharkwater is actually now more than two years old and, since it was produced, shark populations around the world have further declined dramatically”, whilst at the same time demand for shark fin (soup) has continued to explode in Asia.

Ms. Ward-Paige pointed to two types of extinction faced by sharks – commercial extinction, where the rarity of the fish simply makes the practice of finning commercially unfeasible as a business, and functional extinction in which there are just too few sharks left in existence to support the growth or fresh shark populations. Either way, the “commercial” or “functional” extinction of shark populations around the world would likely be irreversible.

Herman Ho, Managing Director of ADEX, said that research by top marine biologists like Dr. Myers and the Global Shark Assessment all indicate the same fate for sharks - imminent extinction of the species within ten to fifteen years at the present rates of decline.

Speakers, conservationists and dive professionals at ADEX all agreed that Asians may not need to adapt culturally to avoid eating sharks fin, because in the near future that change will simply be forced upon them by the complete eradication of the species due to illegal finning carried out on a massive scale. The removal of a culturally important practice such as consuming shark fin at wedding banquets may be felt by consumers to be a loss, but the loss to the marine eco-system will be far more serious.

Mr. Ho said that this year, ADEX has focused on green issues like eco-diving, marine conservation and the adoption of a sustainable approach towards the world's oceans. Central to marine conservation is the balancing of the ecosystem. “By finning, we are causing a disruption to the ecosystem. Sharks, the natural predators of the oceans, keep other marine populations within sustainable limits and are important to the balance of the wider biosphere, “ said Mr. Ho.

In Sharkwater, Rob Stewart closes with the sobering words, “We depend on the oceans for oxygen, the oceans that sharks control. If we lose sharks we’ll disrupt the oxygen we need to breathe.”

“At a time when everyone is equating environmental awareness with being concerned about CO2 emissions and looking up at the sky, we tend to forget to look downwards towards the ocean depths and how we are abusing the underwater environment and the creatures which dwell there,” said Mr. Ho.

“We therefore close ADEX this year with a call to action for all Asian people, and Singaporeans in particular, to avoid the practice of eating shark fin. This custom of serving a prestige dish, a quite meaningless gesture really, will shortly eradicate one of the oldest living species on the planet, since sharks were around for millions of years before mankind arrived.”

Singaporean diver Michael Aw, founder of ADEX exhibitor Ocean N Environment and publisher of Ocean Geographic magazine, has created the “Double Joy Luck” card which Chinese wedding couples can place on their banquet tables to inform and educate their guests as to why they are not serving shark fin for dinner. “It’s a great way for two individuals to reach out to maybe several hundred people at the same time to try to change their cultural perceptions towards the practice of eating shark fin. Those people can go on to educate their friends and family members in turn,” said Mr. Aw.

“ADEX hopes to provide an annual forum for discussion of environmentally sustainable issues such as shark finning or coral bleaching and get the whole dive community networked on the latest developments so they can develop strategies and react to them as one voice,” said Mr. Ho.

As if to illustrate this point, Mr. Barry Andrewartha, editor of Sport Diving Magazine, now into its 20th year, raised the red flag at ADEX this week on Queensland’s recent and surprising issuing of permits for shark finning along the Great Barrier Reef. This development, in a country widely regarded as having high levels of environmentally awareness at government level, comes at a time when Global Shark Assessment says that nothing short of a total global ban on shark finning will be able to reverse the depletion trends.

Preservation of fragile coral reefs also came under the spotlight at ADEX this week. Richard Leck, Climate Change Strategy Leader for the Coral Triangle was at ADEX to speak to members of the tourism industry about how climate change will physically and economically impact on the Coral Triangle. Mr. Leck’s group hopes to build a sense of understanding and commitment to this issue and eventually help build a series of actions and recommendations that conservationists and the industry can work towards.

Another conservation expert, Julian Hyde, Malaysian chapter leader for US-based Reef Check, was also at ADEX to address reef-preservation. In 1997, Reef Check provided the first solid evidence that coral reefs have been damaged on a global scale. The survey raised the awareness of scientists, governments, politicians and the general public about the value of coral reefs, threats to their health and solutions to coral reef problems. Julian, who is based in the popular tourist island of Tioman, spoke about the work on Reef Check Malaysia in monitoring and reversing damage to coral reefs by poor dive and fishing practices.

ADEX provided an opportunity for many local school children to learn what marine conservation is all about. The show’s EcoVillage @ ADEX, an educational-raising initiative this year, hosted visiting groups from MGS, Fairfield, Nanyang Girls, SMU, Ngee Ann Poly, Jurong West Secondary and Chung Cheng Yishun.

Mr. Ho concluded by saying, “For ADEX to adopt a green theme is no fad. There is really no choice. Unless the regional dive industry as a whole adopts a sustainable approach to regional marine eco-systems there will quite simply be nothing left to see, and therefore no dive industry. Those who have dived the Mediterranean will know what it means to dive a sea severely depleted of corals and marine species.”

ADEX will be back next year and the event, now under the new management of TMX Productions, will be continually based in Singapore from 2008 onwards.