Shark Awareness Programme (Part 2 of 2)
By Mun Yee San, Sin Chew Daily, 23 June 2016
Translated by Tan Whei Li for MNS Marine
“What is your first impression of a shark？”
This was the first question asked by the Service Manager of SSI Nick Khoo during the 4-day-3-night Shark Awareness Programme organised by the MNS Marine Group.
Participants were divided into groups to draw their first impressions of the shark. Most of them drew sharp teeth and human fear. Some of them drew a shark with sad face.
Khoo said that the public has a fear of sharks and prejudice against them. In 2007, in a survey conducted on 604 people in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, 89.1% of people said the Great white shark would come to mind when they thought of sharks, while 82.4% said the first thing that came to mind was that sharks are humans and were dangerous.
Where does the fear of sharks come from? Khoo pointed out that sensational media coverage and thrill-seeking in the entertainment industry, in addition to ignorance, are the causes of this fear.
He said that 70% of our fear originates from personal experience, media reporting and were developed from childhood. Only 30% of our fears are genetic, such as fear of the dark, the unknown, sharp teeth, and the risk of injury.
Ignorance of the Importance of Sharks
Khoo emphasised that the most common misconception about sharks is that sharks eat humans. As a result, people are not compassionate towards sharks and they don’t feel anything wrong about consuming sharks.
“They don’t know the important role of sharks in the marine ecosystem. Assuming all the top predators in the ocean are gone, what do you think will happen?” he asked.
“First, the herbivores would reproduce in large quantities and plants would be wiped out. When the population of plants decreases, herbivores would slowly decrease. Eventually, all the living organisms would either migrate or die of hunger.”
He strongly disagrees with consuming shark’s fin soup as a symbol of pride among Chinese. “The fin is actually tasteless. Shark’s fin soup is still a popular dish during weddings and company dinners because people want to safeguard their pride and egos.”
What happens if we don’t eat shark’s fins but imitation fins? He said, if we continue to consume shark’s fin, even if it is imitation, this will still give the impression of shark’s fin as a symbol of pride.
“So, when the shark’s fin becomes rare, its price will go up. The rich will keep offering higher prices for shark’s fin. And this vicious cycle will give people the wrong impression that consuming shark’s fin soup is important in Chinese’s culture.”
He emphasised that consuming shark’s fin soup is not cultural. Similar to footbinding, it is a bad practice that needs to be abolished.
Sharks are the Top Predator
Lastly, Khoo emphasised that the shark is the top predator. It cannot be treated as a pet. However, close contact between the shark and diver is happening too often. “Some divers are becoming bolder because shark tourism is gaining popularity and there have been very few reported shark attacks yearly.”
100 MILLION SHARKS ARE KILLED YEARLY
Biological Death of Great White Shark
Nick Khoo pointed out that 100 million sharks are killed for sport and shark’s fins yearly. In merely 6 years, the Great white shark has been declared biologically dead. The population of Hammerhead sharks has reduced by 89% and Blue shark by 76%. The number of shark species in Malaysia is now only 10%.
“Even baby sharks are not spared. Shark’s fin mafia are marketing the fins of baby sharks for its tenderness.”
He said, as a result, there are now only a handful of shark offspring. The gestation period of sharks is long and they take many years to mature. Hence, the consumption of sharks has to be stopped.
From the health point of view, shark products are toxic. The bioaccumulation of methyl mercury in the body of shark is high because it is the top predator. Methyl mercury can damage our nervous system, cause cancers, lead to impotence and harm fetuses.
“40% of the tested shark meat was found to have higher than permitted levels of methyl mercury. A legal case won by WildAid Organisation in the United States, once again proved the methyl mercury content in shark’s fins.”
Khoo added that we not only destroy the marine ecosystem and the survival of mankind, but also poisoning ourselves, so what is the logic of consuming shark products?
SHARKS DO NOT REACT TO HUMAN’S BLOOD
Nick Khoo: Sharks Mostly Consume Sick and Injured Fish
When conducting the Shark Specialty Course, Nick Khoo aimed to explain the body language of the shark when a diver meets a shark. Most importantly, he wants the participants to understand why sharks attack.
He emphasised that most sharks eat fish and tend to hunt down sick or injured fish. As such, the shark is also called the “Police of Marine Ecology”.
“Often, humans are bigger in size as compared to a shark. To the sharks, we are the aliens and are not their natural food.”
He also told participants that in a Discovery Channel documentary, a test was conducted on whether sharks had a taste for human blood. When fish blood was put into the water, sharks were attracted to it. But when human blood was put into the water, there was no response from the sharks.
Participant Steven Wong (26), an Environmental Executive Officer who has knowledge of tropical aquatic animals, was surprised to hear about the test. He had thought human blood could attract or excite sharks, but that turned out to be a myth.
Khoo continued to explain that shark have seven senses, i.e. hearing, sight, pressure senses, electronic impulses, touch and taste.
Many experts say when sharks encounter an unfamiliar object including a diver, they use different senses to detect the object and will react differently at different distances. At the furthest distance, i.e. the perception point, there is hardly or little risk of a shark attack. At a closer distance, i.e. the curiosity zone, it is important the diver stays cautious. At the close-up zone, there is a potential of a shark attack.
“When sharks detect a diver, they will turn around and swim away quickly. If they are curious, they will cast an eye on the diver. Even in the close-up zone, the sharks will circle around the diver and swim away. At this distance, sharks use primarily the pressure senses.
“However, with the right conditions, certain sharks may be more curious about the diver. In the close-up zone, this can be very dangerous for the diver. Under certain circumstance, the sharks may want to use their touch senses to feel the person or the unfamiliar object. Finally, they might want to smell or taste it.”
He said when a shark touches a diver, it is merely out of curiosity. Often, it will quickly swim away. “But, sharks also use taste to sense an unfamiliar object. They might want to nibble the object. Sometimes, they don’t even leave their teeth marks.”
Close-up Zone Is Regarded As an Attack Zone
According to expert definition, every human-shark encounter, including a rub or a nudge in the close-up zone is regarded as a shark attack.
He said, all known shark attacks are recorded in the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) and the Global Shark Attack File (GSAF). According to the statistics, there is an average of 63 cases of shark attack per year globally. Among these were only 3 death cases.
He pointed out that the probability of shark attacks is much lower than that of winning a lottery, because only one shark attack occurs out of 250 millions swimmers, divers and surfers.
Nibbling Resulting in Excessive Bleeding
He therefore pointed out it is incorrect to say that sharks kill. Even a person who dies in a shark encounter is usually not because of an attack from a shark. The most common cause of fatal accident is because of nibbling from a shark out of curiosity. Due to their razor-sharp teeth, a victim often dies due to excessive bleeding.
“Sharks are not man-eaters that swallow a human without a trace, as portrayed in movies.”
SIX REASONS THAT SHARKS ATTACK
Since most sharks will turn around to swim away when they see divers, why do incidents of shark attacks still happen?
Khoo explained that sharks are triggered to attack for six reasons: bait is thrown into the water, causing the sharks to be confused; their senses become overloaded; competing for food; the different personalities of sharks; regular feeding of sharks; and divers treating sharks as pets. The more factors occur at the same time, the higher the risk of sharks attacking.
Khoo strongly disagreed with using bait to attract sharks. He said this allows tourists to see more sharks but little do they know this will change the behaviour of sharks.
“There are two ways of baiting. One is to seal food in a container and allow its smell to lure the sharks. However, sharks will stay away. Another type of baiting is to put food into the water. This method is more dangerous. When the sharks are lured by the smell of food, they will start to hunt.”
Other than putting food in the water, regular feeding can also lead to shark attacks. Sharks can develop a habit of waiting for food if they are fed regularly. This is not natural behaviour of sharks, and they will eventually stop being afraid of humans.
“There are too many similar cases. For example, tiger sharks migrated along the coastal region of South Africa a few years ago. But today, they only stay at a region because they are used to be fed regularly.
The personality of sharks is also a reason for shark attacks. No two sharks have the same personality. Only an expert can distinguish between “attacker” and “player”.
PLEASE JOIN IN “MY FIN MY LIFE” CAMPAIGN
Before the course ended, Nick Khoo made all participants commit to talking to three persons to whom they would promote the importance of shark conservation, so that more people will say no to shark’s fin soup.
The “My Fin My Life” campaign, led by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), started in January this year and will end in July. It is a joint campaign that involves the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Marine Group and a few NGOs.
Khoo said the “My Fin My Life” campaign needed to obtain a million pledges from Malaysians to say no to shark’s fin soup. With this, we will be able to show the restaurants that there is no demand on shark’s fin soup and hopefully the dish will phase out.
Chan Beng Beng：Organisation, A Louder Voice
Chan Beng Beng (50), who is in the communications industry, said what is frustrating is that efforts from a single person are limited and cannot reach out to all. An organisation, on the other hand, can give a louder voice.
Wong added that if there were a choice, he would choose to have no shark’s fin on menus. He has also refused to eat shark’s fin soup at banquets. On the other hand, he feels guilty wasting what has already been cooked and served. As such, he believes only a collective voice from the public will be able to pressure the restaurants not to serve shark’s fin soup.
1. Two hundred millions of sharks are killed for the appetite of mankind（photo: Sharkproject)
2. Sharks have seven senses. Many experts say, when a shark encounters an unfamiliar object including a diver, they use different senses to detect the object and will react differently at different distance or zone. These are the perception point, curiosity zone and close-up zone. (Photo：Sharkproject
3. Happy together: MNS Marine Group volunteer Wong Siew Lyn,giving a souvenir to Nick Khoo.
4. All participants will obtain an electronic certificate issued by Scuba Schools International (SSI) once they complete the Specialty Shark Diving Course. Picture shows an electronic certificate of Ivy Loh.
5. Participants and the organising committee showing the sign for sharks to indicate their appreciation of sharks and the marine ecosystem. Thumbnail picture shows the form given to all participants at the end of the course to write down the names of three persons to whom they are committed to promoting shark conservation.（Photo: Sin Chew）
Photos: Ivy Loh, Angeline Siok and Tan Whei Li
Click here for Part 1 of this report.