Promoting the wrong message to island tourists

By Serina Rahman

It was not so long ago on a ‘working trip’ to Pulau Redang that the Marine Group encountered oblivious tourists trapping hapless fish in plastic bags and towels. Just recently, on what should have been a holiday, Malaysian Nature Society’s Marine Group members emerged from the sea off Pasir Panjang after snorkelling to find three men removing long nets.

Thankfully, they were not from the illegal aquarium trade as we had first thought, but still alarmingly, they were alleged minions of  Tourism Malaysia, hired to film an advertisement for shark feeding as a tourism activity. (They had originally planned to film shark feeding in Pulau Payar but Payar wasn’t nice enough to film, so they came to Redang to ‘simulate’ Payar).

redang001When questioned, these budding filmmakers insisted that they had the proper permits from the relevant authorities and that they were well aware of the environmental consequences of what they were doing.

Alarm bells clanged increasingly louder, however, when we realised that upon being unable to source for enough sharks from the vicinity for the shoot (whether self-caught or purchased from local sources), they were importing sharks from Indonesia to star in their commercial. The net was there to keep the sharks in while they did the filming of the shark feeding. After the filming, they released these imported sharks into Redang waters. To be fair to these men, they firmly believed that theirs was an act of great benevolence as they were “rescuing these sharks from the aquarium trade to be set free”.

Blissfully ignorant of any ecological consequences of the release of a foreign (albeit similar) species in local waters and the bleak chances of survival for these previously hand-fed fish in the wild, they were adamant that they were doing the right thing.

redang003As unpleasant as this encounter was, it brings to light the even more unpalatable realisation that we are fighting a losing battle in our attempt to teach people that fish feeding is simply not good for the fish.

On the ground we work hard to explain that fish feeding interferes with an animal’s natural habits; that it conditions the fish to turn to humans for food, thus making them more aggressive; that ‘fish food’ and bread could be harmful to species biologically created to feed on coral and algae; and that these same fish lose the instinct to hunt and starve to death during the monsoon when there are no longer tourists to feed them.

But at the top, the powers-that-be actively promote fish feeding as a tourism attraction. It is no wonder that we are always confronted with the same belligerent and patronising behaviour that we faced that day in Redang.

Until we can reach out to, educate and bring about a change of attitude among the decision makers in government and the relevant authorities, we will not be able to succeed in our quest to enlighten the masses. It’s a sobering thought.

Update from MNS HQ: Upon checking with the Marine Parks Section, we were informed that the production crew had a permit to film on Pulau Redang but they had failed to reveal their plan to import sharks or use nets in their permit application. The Marine Parks Section would NOT have approved the permit had these activities been mentioned.