A group of divers in Thailand recently released sharks into the wild, in an effort to spotlight the decimation of the species.
It seems ironic, considering “Jaws” mania has only increased over the years. But the fact remains: although a handful of people around the world will die in shark attacks each year; sharks are slaughtered in the millions, by humans.
Where Have All the Sharks Gone?
Dive Master Gwyn Mills used to almost guarantee clients they would see sharks while exploring Thailand’s Andaman Sea. Lately, he has seen nothing.
“After diving for several months non-stop, looking for sharks on our local reefs, we saw none,” says Mills. “My wife and I took the last dive of the day and below us was one tiny brown banded bamboo shark. What made this especially memorable was it was my wife’s first encounter with a shark, after learning to dive two years back!”
What also made it special was the discovery soon after that they were expecting. “We decided then to devise a plan so my baby and the rest of the population can see sharks well into the future.”
The plan? To re-introduce captive bred sharks, and those rescued from pet shops, aquariums, restaurants and fishermen, to the sea.
The Top of the Food Chain
Some of Earth’s most ancient creatures, sharks have changed little over an estimated 400-million years of existence.
High level or ‘apex’ predators, they are at the top of the heap in the marine food chain. But the ongoing eradication of sharks has been shown to have a trickledown effect on the ecosystem.
Five years ago in the mid-Atlantic US it was noted the decrease in shark population had caused a surge in the number of rays on the seacoast; to such an extent, the glut of rays wiped out the century-old scallop fisheries. Reports by the worldwide Census of Marine Life showed the increase in rays was relative to the decline in sharks that preyed on them. Similar stories have come from Japan.
Despite this, and global pledges and regulations enacted in the past decade, shark finning and by-catch continues almost unchecked by many nations.
This unprecedented and wasteful slaughter of sharks worldwide is put at 100-million or more by environmental groups; scientists put the number at 30 to 70-million per annum.
Both however agree: with nearly half of all shark species threatened or endangered, and numbers plummeting; the plight of sharks is a crisis.
The Release: September 3
“I’ve witnessed tanks of Black Tip Reef Sharks for sale in Pattaya and Bangkok for the pet trade, and large amounts of Bamboo and Zebra Sharks for sale at restaurants. On a weekly basis Dive Tribe is sent shark fishing, finning, and slaughtered shark pictures from within Thailand’s National Marine Parks,” Mills reveals.
“It was decided to use the sharks themselves to bring attention to their demise and show the public what great creatures they are and how our environment requires them,” Mills continues. Partnering with Thailand’s Mahidol University and Dr. Wayne Phillips there, Dive Tribe (a club Mills formed to promote responsible diving and tourism in Southeast Asia) will release rescued sharks along the Bay of Bangkok, and off the islands of Koh Samui and Koh Tao September 3. Private donations to their campaign have funded the purchase and care of the sharks, which will be tagged and monitored, with the hopes populations will increase.
“After the release we will have a video to educate the schools, colleges and fishing communities, and try to educate the Thai public as to the importance of sharks to their economy,” explains Mills.
“Lastly, we will be talking with the Environment Minister of Thailand and handing him our petition asking for Shark Fishing/Finning to be stopped in Thailand, or Shark Safe Protected Areas to be put into place until tougher legislation can be implemented.”
Mills admits the effort puts just a small dent in the Goliath problem. “There is no way we can change the balance… but this is the best way to get the message out.” And it has been working. Media interest has included the major papers and television stations in Thailand – including the government run Channel 11.
Mills hopes the tide turns for sharks in Thailand and across the globe. “Sharks are far from enemies for divers,” he points out.
While humans have a one in 3.7 million chance of shark attack during their lifetime (according to the Florida Museum of Natural History Ichthyology Department), of 79 attacks worldwide in 2010, only six were fatal.
The presence of sharks, in fact, is a boon to local economies. Noting that divers will return to destinations where they enjoy exciting scenery – IE. ‘see sharks’ – a study by Pew Environment Group extrapolates the tourism value of a single reef share as 1.9 million USD over its life span.
The idea is catching on. Last month the government of The Bahamas – the self-proclaimed shark diving capital of the world – banned commercial fishing of sharks and awarded protection to the 40-some species that inhabit the archipelago. And in Palau, President Johnson Toribiong announced the creation of a 230,000 square mile sanctuary last year, banning the hunting or harassment of marine mammals and other species in Palau waters.
“Divers know that all is not well with the oceans, as they are on the frontline and see the destruction on a daily basis,” says Mills. “The extent to which the shark population is declining in Thailand, to put it bluntly, is alarming.”
Photos courtesy of Dive Tribe.