SECURITY concerns and erratic weather patterns appear to have reduced shark and ray landings in Sabah in the last five years.
The volume of shark and ray catches has dropped by nearly half from 3,431.58 tonnes in 2012 to 1,788.46 last year, said the Sabah Fisheries Department.
Assistant director (marine resource management) Lawrence Kissol Jr. said many factors contributed to the decline in shark and ray catches — a blessing for conservationists.
Due to security concerns in the east coast of Sabah and the 7pm to 5am daily curfew in 10 districts under the Eastern Sabah Safety Zone (Esszone), the number of foreign workers who were willing to go out to sea has declined.
Threats of kidnapping and cross-border crimes have prompted tighter security measures by the Eastern Sabah Security Command in Esszone.
“Because of this, the number of fishing vessels operating in the east coast has dropped,” he said, pointing out the weather patterns in the last few years were also not favourable.
Kissol Jr. reiterated the department did not issue a licence for shark or ray fishing in Sabah, adding that most were caught as bycatches.
“In Sabah, sharks and rays are caught unintentionally. Also, it’s not against the law if people caught sharks or rays and sold them, with the exception of whale shark and sawfish (ray) species,” he said.
Whale sharks and sawfishes are listed as threatened under the Fisheries (Control of Endangered Species of Fish) Regulations 1999, Fisheries Act 1985.
Although the department respected the view of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in pushing the government to list all shark and ray species under the regulations, Kissol Jr. said these marine creatures needed to be exploited in a sustainable way.
“The department has its own responsibility and we look at the situation differently.
“Sharks and rays are part of our ecosystem and if we don’t allow the taking of sharks, their population will grow and become predators to other fishes.
“So, the exploitation of sharks is a way of balancing the ecosystem as long as we don’t overexploit them.
“That’s why we have Fisheries Acts and the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) 2008.
“When we see something that’s inappropriate like shark hunting, we don’t allow it.
“We issue licences for tuna and prawn fishing, but not for sharks.”
Kissol Jr. said no marine species listed under Cites were allowed to be exported without a permit, adding that the department gave no quotas to those who wished to export them.
He, however, said species listed under Cites could be sold domestically, provided they were not listed under the Fisheries Acts 1985.
He said the department had strengthened its enforcement capacity building and equipped enforcement personnel at airports and ports with a guidebook to identify fins and gills belonging to species listed under Cites.
On the shark population, he said the department conducted a continuous study on shark-landing data up to species level, adding that there were species of sharks thriving in Malaysia, including Sabah.
Based on the study, the department has proposed four shark and two ray species, which have been listed under Cites, to be categorised as threatened under the Fisheries Acts 1985.
The sharks are Sphyrna mokarran (great hammerhead shark), Sphyrna zygaena (smooth hammerhead shark), Eusphyra blochii (winghead shark) and the Carcharhinus longimanus (oceanic whitetip shark). The rays are Manta birostris (oceanic manta) and Manta alfredi (reef manta).
“Unlike the Fisheries Acts, there are many species listed under Cites, which is more on controlling the international trade, and NGOs say that we must protect them, too, as they are endangered.
“The species under Cites cannot be automatically listed in the Fisheries Acts because that is not our approach. We have shark experts, who know what species is deemed threatened based on the study.
“Certain species may be threatened at the global level but not in Malaysia. The Sphyrna lewini (scalloped hammerhead), for example, is not listed in the act because our study shows that the population in Sabah is healthy and among the top 10,” he said.
In the move to control shark bycatch and finning, Kissol Jr. said the department had imposed licensing terms since 2014, whereby if fishermen caught sharks, they were not allowed to cut fins on the boat.
Finning needs to be done on land or jetty to ensure there will be no incidents of people cutting fin (on a boat) and throwing the shark’s body back to sea.
“This can be considered as animal cruelty, but as far as the department is concerned, there has been no such incident in the past because, for our fishermen, everything is valuable, from the bones to the meat.
“So every time they catch sharks, they need to bring them to land so others can observe that these fishermen take not only the fin but the whole body.
“If they breach the terms, offenders can be fined RM20,000, or jailed two years, or both.
“There has been no case and our fishermen comply with the laws,” said Kissol Jr.
He said Pulau Mabul off Semporna was considered as one of the bases for fin-cutting.
To a question whether consuming shark fin soup is against the law, he said it was not an offence for restaurants or hotels to serve the delicacy.
“The government’s campaign is to encourage people to say no to shark fin.
“We have yet to have a law that completely bans it. Since 2015, the government has taken a step not to serve shark fin in any government function,” he said.
He said the department was not keeping quiet with regard to shark and ray conservation, adding that it supported the Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Ministry to gazette marine parks as shark sanctuaries.