Thailand: Small bite of victory in bid to save sharks

60 captive sharks set free last Saturday in an area with very few left to excite divers
Nirmal Ghosh Straits Times 5 Sep 11;

IT WAS 7am, long before opening time at Under-water World in Pattaya, Thailand, but already activity was stirring in the cavernous attraction.

Inside, a young Thai man in a black wet suit and boots stood in about half a metre of water in a large tank, with 60 young sharks swirling about his legs.

A pipe siphoned water out of the tank into large, strong, clear plastic bags held by two other Thai volunteers. Once there was enough water in a bag, the man in the tank would scoop up a shark with a net and quickly dump it into one of the bags, which was then pumped with oxygen from a large cylinder and firmly tied.
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'It is a drop in the ocean... But we need to raise awareness. It's just not possible to remove the apex predator and think everything will be okay.'

Dive Tribe's founder Gwyn Mills on the shark release

Once done, the dozens of bags were carefully placed in the back of two pickup trucks, which headed for one of Pattaya's crowded piers.

Fifteen minutes later, the bags were transferred onto two boats which set off and eventually moored at a reef some 26km off Pattaya.

There, under a sunny sky on Saturday morning, six divers went into the water and were handed the bags one by one. They opened the bags, submerging them carefully before letting the sharks swim free.

The black-tipped sharks, which are swift swimmers, shot away; the bamboo sharks which prefer lying quietly among corals and rocks, swam away almost cautiously, as if in awe of their sudden freedom.

This was Dive Tribe's 'great shark release' - probably the largest ever release of captive sharks into the wild in Thailand and possibly Asia.

Most of the released fish were bamboo sharks, but there were also five black-tipped sharks with their distinctive dorsal fins. The sharks' ages ranged from a few months to three years. The black-tipped sharks were each about half a metre long; fully grown, they can reach 1.5m and live up to 25 years in the wild.

All the sharks had been bought with donations from across the world, from restaurants in Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya, and dealers in Bangkok's Chatuchak weekend market, by Mr Gwyn Mills, who founded Dive Tribe two years ago.

Dive Tribe combines diving for paying customers, with marine conservation. Mr Mills, 43, who is British and now a resident of Pattaya, said that in recent years it was clear that Thailand, once one of the best dive destinations in the region, had lost its cachet to other countries, notably Indonesia. Furthermore, what excites divers most is spotting a shark - and there were very few left in the waters off Pattaya.

'Diving is Thailand's second largest sporting activity after golf. A study in Palau in the Pacific Ocean estimated that the tourism value of a single reef shark was US$1.9 million (S$2.2 million) over its lifetime,' he said.

But there are no regulations protecting sharks in Thailand, and they are much sought after for their fins and increasingly for their meat. Mr Mills reckoned most Thai fish balls are made with cheap shark meat.

'Thailand is taking 22,000 tonnes of sharks from the sea every year,' Mr Mills said.

Last Saturday's shark release took place at two sites. As the boat forged through a choppy sea on the way to the first release site at the small island of Ko Rinn, the black-tipped sharks swam in circles in their plastic bags. In half an hour, they would be free.

The owner of the boat, seafarer Robert Camp, said that in his 10 years of diving in the area, he had seen some bamboo sharks, 'occasional' black-tipped sharks, and no hammerhead sharks at all - though they used to be present in the area some years back.

Estimates vary, but hunting for sharks - for their fins, driven by the market for shark's-fin soup - removes up to 100 million sharks a year, big and small, from the seas in the region.

The market is oblivious to the growing evidence that shark's fin is high in mercury content.

Sharks, as long-lived creatures, accumulate more mercury in their systems than other fish with shorter life spans.

Moreover, the removal of sharks, which have been the top predator in the oceans for 400 million years, on this colossal scale has been proven to upset the balance of the marine ecosystem.

In parts of the North Atlantic, a growth in a species of ray normally eaten by sharks has seen a crash in scallops, oysters and clams which are the preferred food of the rays.

Some attempts have been made to curb the slaughter.

The Malaysian state of Sabah, for instance, where diving brought in RM190 million (S$77 million) last year, intends to ban all shark fishing by the end of the year. On the other side of the world, California is debating legislation to ban the sale of shark's fin.

But the concern is these actions will be token. Other countries have been slow to take action. Neither Indonesia nor India, first and second respectively on the list of the world's top 20 shark-fishing nations, has effective regulations on shark fishing.

Sceptics also say events like last Saturday's shark release fuel the trade because traders will hunt more sharks so people like Mr Mills can buy them.

'It is a one-off activity,' Mr Mills said in defence of the event. 'You cannot fuel a trade in just one day a year. And these sharks were as good as dead.'

As the divers emerged from the water and high-fived each other, they spoke of their feelings of elation at seeing the sharks swim away.

'It is a drop in the ocean,' said Mr Mills. 'But we need to raise awareness. It's just not possible to remove the apex predator and think everything will be okay.'