Sabah diving tourism under threat due to sharks and rays overfishing

KOTA KINABALU: A viral image of dried shark fins sold in Kota Kinabalu has sparked concern among divers and tour operators, raising awareness about shark fishing in Sabah.

The overfishing of sharks and rays has led to more than one-third of these species being threatened with extinction globally, mainly due to accidental catch. Sabah, despite not having specific target fisheries for sharks, landed 713 tonnes of sharks and 1,991 tonnes of rays in 2021 alone, according to Marine Research Foundation (MRF).

Shockingly, over 138,000 individual sharks and rays were estimated to have been caught by trawl vessels in just Sabah in a single year, not including landings from other fishing gears such as gillnets, longlines, and purse seine vessels.

Most of these sharks and rays were caught accidentally due to the unselective nature of trawl fishing, leading to reduced population sizes of vulnerable species and contributing to local extinctions.

However, these species are of tremendous value to the people and industry in Sabah.

Sharks are a major draw for local and international scuba divers, and are a main contributor to dive tourism receipts, ranging from RM450 million to RM800 million annually in the last few years.

However, the overfishing of sharks and rays is depleting this valuable resource, with some species threatened with extinction.

Addressing accidental catch should be prioritised in a way that maintains fisher livelihoods while protecting these endangered species, says Dr Nicolas Pilcher, Executive Director of the Marine Research Foundation.

Sustainable fisheries management practices, such as time-area closures and gear restrictions, could reduce accidental catch of sharks and rays. Local communities depend on sharks and rays as part of their diets, but not all species are of high value.

Many low-value specimens continue to be sold in markets, while the sale of shark and ray fins continues to attract high prices, making them an irresistible draw to fishers.

Sabah does not permit old-style shark finning, but the high value of the fins means that many threatened species, such as the Blue Shark, Silky Shark, Hammerhead Shark, and Rhino Ray, remain a valuable catch to fishers.

Addressing accidental catch is only part of the solution. Government agencies and NGOs need to encourage consumers to avoid eating shark fins, and better ways to monitor and improve enforcement of international exports of sharks and rays are needed, where high-value fins are often in greater demand.

Management measures must be mindful of how this is phased out, as entrenched businesses have depended on this trade for decades.

In conclusion, the overfishing of sharks and rays in Sabah is a serious issue that threatens the socio-economic wellbeing of local communities and dive tourism. Sustainable fisheries management practices, alongside efforts to discourage the consumption of shark fins, are necessary to protect these vulnerable species and ensure the continued prosperity of Sabah’s fisheries and tourism sectors.


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