KOTA KINABALU: Shark conservationists have expressed shock and dismay after images of a rare shark in a tank at a restaurant here surfaced online.
The images show the zebra shark, also known as the leopard shark, being confined in a tank inside the restaurant’s eating area.
This species of shark is listed as “Endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of species at risk of extinction, with numbers dwindling worldwide.
The images and video of the marine life were emailed to the media together with the press statement by the Sabah Shark and Ray Initiative (SSRI).
The SSRI aims to strengthen the conservation of sharks and rays in Sabah by improving legal and regulatory frameworks, addressing commercial and small-scale by-catch of sharks and rays, improving the effectiveness of marine protected areas, and promoting political action through raised awareness.
In the fishing industry, “by-catch” refers to a fish or other marine species caught unintentionally while fishing for a specific species or size of wildlife.
Nick Pilcher, Marine Research Foundation founder and executive director, is appalled by the images, saying he fears the worst.
“It is disheartening to see this threatened shark being kept like this in a restaurant – we can only presume it is there to be sold as food, which is shocking,” he said, in the statement.
“This is an incredibly rare species of shark, one which should be afforded protection by law, according to its endangered status.”
Despite being rare and mainly a nocturnal animal, zebra sharks can occasionally be seen on the reefs around Sabah.
Pilcher said based on the images online, another rare species was also kept at the restaurant.
“A juvenile Napoleon wrasse is being kept in the tank with the shark, with an adult female Napoleon wrasse in another tank alongside it.
“These fish are also listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, and are only regularly sighted in protected areas, such as Pulau Sipadan,” he said.
However, despite their endangered status, neither species is protected by law in Sabah, outside of the Sabah Parks gazetted areas.
A group of NGOs are pursuing this issue as part of the Sabah Shark and Ray Initiative. They include LEAP Spiral, Forever Sabah, WWF-Malaysia, Marine Research Foundation, Scuba Junkie SEAS, and the Sabah Shark Protection Association.
FMT has reached out to the state fisheries department for comments.
From a conservation perspective, Pilcher said it was frustrating to see these endangered marine life being kept in such a manner, particularly when so many government bodies and NGOs are working together to protect the incredible marine biodiversity found in the state.
“Endangered species such as these should be afforded full protection by law, and not exploited by restaurant owners and traders,” he said.
Conservation manager at Scuba Junkie SEAS, David McCann said it was high time the authorities added more species to the protected list such as those identified as endangered by the IUCN, like the zebra shark.
“It would mean that these incredible animals are protected outside of the confines of our marine parks,” he said.
Affording legal protection to endangered species, while a complex issue, can be achieved, he said, through both regional and global assessments.
Marine Protected Areas have been a notable success for shark conservation in Sabah, particularly for Pulau Sipadan, which gained international recognition in the recently published Global Fin Print study.
The study, carried out in 2015, found that despite sharks being “functionally extinct” in 20% of the world’s reefs, well-enforced protected areas – such as Pulau Sipadan – had abundant and thriving populations of sharks.
Pilcher said Sabah has an opportunity to show that it can build on this success by protecting rare species outside of marine parks, through adding more rare species to existing lists of species that are protected by law.
McCann added that Sabah was recognised internationally for the incredible biodiversity and rare species found in the state.
“Protecting these species by law would enable local conservation efforts, which could, in turn, have positive ramifications from a global conservation perspective, as well as benefitting ecotourism.
“But for now we ask that appropriate action be taken for the welfare of the shark and wrasse in these pictures. The spectacle in the restaurant is not one we would like to see representing Sabah on a global social media platform,” he said.
By : Durie Rainer Fong – FMT