Fish-eating humans

Man-eating fish always stirs the imagination. However, the bigger problem is fish-eating humans who seem to be gobbling up all the fish in the world in a hurry.

Mabul Marine Week 2011 was not just about garbage disposal. Raising eco-awareness was another key plank of the event, and organising chairman Rohan Perkins spoke passionately about conservation in several resorts.

“There are seven species of sea turtles worldwide, and Sabah is very lucky to have four of them in its seas,” he told an audience of some 100 tourists one night. However, garbage, especially plastic bags, is a huge problem for turtles who mistake them for jellyfish.

“An autopsy of a dead turtle by a vet in Brisbane showed 68 plastic bags inside its stomach!” lamented Perkins, who is also manager and environmental officer at Scuba Junkie Mabul Beach Resort.

Nevertheless, he is glad that the world-famous Pulau Sipadan has been declared off-limits to resorts (visitors make day trips there from Mabul instead) as this means that turtles can lay their eggs on the beaches there without human interference.

“If tourist resorts are built right to the sea’s edge, this means that turtles will have no beaches to nest on,” Perkins explained.

What about turtle eggs on Mabul itself?

According to Perkins, Scuba Junkie has taken the initiative to pay RM10 to locals for each turtle egg they find, which is about 10 times more than if they sold it to others for consumption in the markets on the mainland.

“When anyone discovers a turtles nest,” he explained, “they will receive a finder’s fee based on the number of eggs in the nest. Then trained staff will relocate the eggs to our turtle hatchery which is fenced up to keep out predators such as dogs.”

Sarimah Ibrahim, who was brought in by JSK Events as the goodwill ambassador for MMW, has done over 300 dives over the past 11 years.

“I am just a messenger. I love diving at Sipadan and Mabul, and I want to help conserve the marine life here,” she said. “I believe in using social media to promote causes, not so much to talk about make-up and such. When I tweeted about how a turtle had swallowed 68 plastic bags, it was retweeted over 200 times within 15 minutes.”

Sarimah joined Twitter just five months ago, and already she has 13,000 followers.

“I used to think that we are powerless to make a change. But after I discovered how fast information could be spread on social media, I know we can all do our part,” enthused Sarimah, who recently began working as a radio DJ for Era FM.

“I also hope that Astro will have more Bahasa Malaysia subtitles in their environment-related programmes.”

The real Jaws

Another talk that Rohan did during MMW was on shark conservation. As a Malaysian Chinese, I was struck by the YouTube clip featuring Chinese basketball star Yao Ming (search for his name and “shark fin’s soup” on the site).

And it was sobering to know that during his 90-minute talk, 12,000 sharks were killed around the world.

Sarimah commented, “Ten years ago, I didn’t know that sharks were thrown back alive into the sea to die after their fins had been cut off. That’s like cutting off a gorilla’s arms and leaving it in the jungle.

“As an emcee of dinner events, I have always been exposed to shark fin’s soup. And as an entertainer there were times I was forced to eat it so as not to appear uncool. But nowadays, I am happy to say that most dinner functions serve crab meat’s soup instead. Well done!”

Ironically for Perkins, it was the movie Jaws that got him into shark conservation.

“I was terrified by the movie,” he said. “But that also got me very interested in sharks. Now I know it was all make-believe and the fear of sharks is unfounded. I have dived all over South-East Asia with sharks and never had any problems.”

He noted that statistics of fatalities in the US for 2009 show 936,000 cases from heart attacks and 43,000 from traffic accidents.

“Only five died from shark attacks in 2009 but that, unfortunately, is what captures all the media attention,” pointed out Perkins, who explained that most attacks are “bump and bite” cases where a shark accidentally knocks into a diver and then bites.

“Divers should respect the fact that they are entering the shark’s realm. Keep your distance and please don’t go spearfishing and then hang a bunch of bleeding fish from your belt (blood attracts sharks),” said Perkins, adding that world fishing stocks have declined by 90% since 1988 and the real culprit is industrial-scale fishing.

“Big companies are using fishing lines full of hooks that are five miles (8km) long! The biggest fishing nets now can fit 13 Boeing 747 jets. Large-scale fishing is wasteful as one-tenth of the world’s catch of fish is thrown back dead into the sea (because of poor prices),” he lamented.

“Mitsubishi is the world’s largest exporter of tuna but it’s just one of their many businesses. Big companies can survive without fish but not ordinary fishermen. I come from Pembrokeshire, a fishing community in south Wales, and I will be the first to understand that people’s livelihoods need to be protected,” Perkins added.

This is where sustainable fishing comes in. While the movie Jaws hyped up a totally unreal shark threat, the real terror is what our human jaws are doing to fish life. We have to try to slow down consumption of fish that are close to extinction (see the list at In the meantime, tourism can help save marine life too. And no, they don’t even have to do any clean-ups!

“Just by being here, you are helping,” Perkins told his audience of tourists. “And some of the money you spend will go back to the community, whether it’s jobs in resorts, sale of souvenirs, or provision of services like transport.”

Indeed, the long-term income from tourists who pay to see living marine life obviously outweighs the short-term gain from killing them.


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