The real sharks

These crea­tures are im­por­tant to keep the marine ecosys­tem in bal­ance.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Ecowatch - By WONG LI ZA star2­green@thes­tar.com.my

SHARKS are a mis­un­der­stood species. Yes, they are top preda­tors in the marine world and hu­mans have been killed or in­jured by sharks (though the chances are very, very slim).

How­ever, sharks play a key role in the ecosys­tem by keep­ing the food web in bal­ance and help un­der­wa­ter habi­tats thrive.

Sharks tend to eat the slower, older or un­healthy fish thus pre­vent­ing the spread of po­ten­tially harm­ful dis­eases.

Re­mov­ing the weak­est sea crea­tures also strength­ens the prey species’ gene pools. As the “fittest” fishes gen­er­ally mul­ti­ply in greater num­bers, this leads to a big­ger pop­u­la­tion of healthy fish.

Through in­tim­i­da­tion, sharks in­ad­ver­tently reg­u­late the be­hav­iour of prey species, pre­vent­ing them from over­graz­ing vi­tal habi­tats.

For ex­am­ple, tur­tles (a prey of tiger sharks), graze on sea grass. With­out the sharks, the tur­tles tend to spend too much time graz­ing on the most nu­tri­tious sea grass, con­se­quently de­stroy­ing those habi­tats.

Out of the 70 species of sharks found in Malaysian wa­ters, only the whale shark is pro­tected un­der the Fish­eries (Con­trol of En­dan­gered Species of Fish) Reg­u­la­tions 1999 (part of the Fish­eries Act 1985).

Re­cently, the Sabah Gov­ern­ment pro­posed that four more shark species and two ray species be pro­tected un­der the Reg­u­la­tions (see “Worth more alive”).

In a re­cent email in­ter­view with marine sci­en­tist Alvin Chel­liah, a pro­gramme man­ager from Reef Check Malaysia – a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion that en­gages with the lo­cal com­mu­nity to raise aware­ness on co­ral reef pro­tec­tion – he dis­cusses his love for sharks, their role in the marine ecosys­tem and the ur­gent need to pro­tect them.

1. What do you love about sharks?

If you ever get the chance to swim with sharks, you will re­alise just how per­fectly made they are in (terms of ) their de­sign, the way they move, the way they hunt.

We are talk­ing about an an­i­mal that has had the same gen­eral form since the time of the di­nosaurs. It’s like even evo­lu­tion took a good look at sharks and said, nah, don’t need to mess with that, it’s al­ready per­fect. This is why I love sharks.

It’s also hard not to get ex­cited over a fish with no bones, but with ar­mour scales and rows of teeth that never stop re­plac­ing them­selves af­ter fall­ing off. Sharks also have spe­cial elec­trore­cep­tor cells that al­low them to use elec­tric fields to nav­i­gate and hunt for prey. I mean come on, you have to ad­mit they are just freak­ing awe­some.

2. What is the role of sharks in the marine ecosys­tem?

Sharks are apex preda­tors sit­ting on top of the food chain in most marine ecosys­tems. In a bal­anced ecosys­tem, small her­biv­o­rous fish get eaten by car­ni­vores that in turn get eaten by apex preda­tors.

So sharks help con­trol the pop­u­la­tion of these smaller car­ni­vores such as groupers and snap­pers. Re­move sharks from the picture and the smaller car­ni­vores in­crease, thus eat­ing up her­bi­vores such as par­rot fish and rab­bit fish.

Once the pop­u­la­tion of her­bi­vores de­creases, you will have ex­ces­sive growth of al­gae (which choke corals). This can cause ma­jor, per­haps ir­re­versible, changes to the ecosys­tem.

3. The Sabah Gov­ern­ment is push­ing for four more shark and two ray species to be pro­tected. What is your com­ment?

Within our marine parks, all sharks and rays are pro­tected by the Fish­eries Act. If it was up to me, I would legally pro­tect all sharks any­where (not just in­side marine parks) around Malaysia.

But com­ing back to re­al­ity, I think it’s (still) awe­some that the (Sabah Gov­ern­ment) is push­ing for more species to be pro­tected by law. This shows that Malaysians are start­ing to re­alise the im­por­tance of sharks and that we want to do some­thing to pro­tect them.

Can we do more? Yes of course, but this is a good start.

4. What can help pro­tect sharks and rays?

So­cial me­dia and tele­vi­sion are per­fect for in­form­ing peo­ple. Videos, pictures and nar­ra­tives of sharks swim­ming grace­fully in the sea, (make a stark con­trast to those with) their fins sliced off and left for dead at the bot­tom of the seabed.

All this can touch our soul and kin­dle the de­sire to en­sure the sur­vival of these an­i­mals.

Many of us are still not very aware of the im­por­tance or beauty of sharks. Like we say (in Malay), Tak ke­nal maka tak cinta (Hard to un­der­stand the un­fa­mil­iar), and if you think you ke­nal sharks be­cause you watched all the Jaws movies, you couldn’t be more wrong.

Sharks are not blood­thirsty, mind­less killers. Ed­u­ca­tional shows like Shark Week on Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel have been try­ing to fix the neg­a­tive stigma around sharks.

I’m sure many who have watched the shows have had a change of heart.

5. What is the main dan­ger to sharks?

I would say that the high de­mand and price tag on shark fins is the main dan­ger to sharks.

The shark fin in­dus­try is a multi-mil­lion dol­lar in­dus­try and when there is so much money in­volved, there are al­ways as many rea­sons why peo­ple do not want things to change.

6. What do you think should be done to pro­tect sharks?

First, we need to ed­u­cate our­selves on this mat­ter by read­ing up or tun­ing in to Shark

Week on Dis­cov­ery (Chan­nel).

We need to be in­formed to make bet­ter de­ci­sions, to know what busi­nesses we are go­ing to sup­port. You have heard it many times; when the buy­ing stops, the killing can too.

Se­condly, voice your con­cerns to those in power. Push for greater pro­tec­tion for these an­i­mals. Re­port vi­o­la­tions to the author­i­ties.

Thirdly, sup­port lo­cal ini­tia­tives. There are many NGOs work­ing to pro­tect sharks that need pub­lic sup­port.

The next time you plan a hol­i­day, visit one of our Malaysian marine parks where all shark species are pro­tected.

Shark Week re­turns to Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel for its 29th in­stal­ment this July with 10 episodes of spe­cial shark sto­ries in­cor­po­rat­ing in­no­va­tive re­search tech­nol­ogy to re­veal in­sights into some of the most unique shark species in the world.

Catch Olympic swim­ming cham­pion Michael Phelps as he dives into the shark world at the Bi­mini Shark Lab in Mi­ami, Flor­ida, United States. Lis­ten to Chris Noth nar­rate the episode, Sharks And The City: New York.

Shark Week pre­mieres on Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel (Astro Chan­nel 551) on Mon­day, July 24, 9pm with two episodes back-to-back and runs un­til July 28.

— Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel

In an episode of Shark Week, a marine ex­pert puts a high-tech tag on a great ham­mer­head shark in the Ba­hamas.

— Reef Check Malaysia

Marine sci­en­tist Alvin says that sharks are im­por­tant to main­tain a healthy marine ecosys­tem.

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