IT MAY be politically incorrect, but three marine life experts said at a forum yesterday that it makes no sense to ban the sale of shark's fin.
By Feng Zengkun
But a fourth expert stood his ground, insisting a temporary ban on shark's fin and meat would reduce the killing.
A debate over this controversial topic played out at a forum organised by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, attended by about 100 people.
In another corner, supported by the majority of the audience, was Mr Louis Ng, executive director of Singapore animal advocacy group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres).In one corner were Dr Giam Choo Hoo, a member of the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites); Professor Steve Oakley, Shark Savers Malaysia chairman; and Mr Hank Jenkins, president of conservation outfit Species Management Specialists.
The topic has garnered recent interest here after a string of local supermarkets, such as Carrefour and FairPrice, and hotels like Shangri-La pledged to stop serving or selling the dish.
A global movement to outlaw the trade of shark's fin has also been gaining momentum as well as converts, who believe that the dish is inhumane and endangers the shark population.
But Dr Giam, Prof Oakley and Mr Jenkins all claim that prohibiting its trade will not dramatically reduce the number of sharks killed worldwide. They noted that many countries such as Germany, France, Australia and Iceland have long killed sharks for their meat.
'Even if shark's fin were banned, these countries would continue to catch sharks for the meat,' said Prof Oakley.
Dr Giam armed his presentation with figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation: In 2009, 70 per cent of caught sharks were by fishermen in developing countries. 'From my own research, fishermen in these countries are mostly poor and will eat every part of the shark,' said the former deputy director at the Primary Production Department, the predecessor of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).
But Mr Ng countered that these fishermen could be better supported through eco-tourism, where divers pay to swim with the sharks. In the Bahamas, such trips are worth US$78 million (S$99 million) to its economy each year. This would also be more sustainable in the long run, he said.
Shark protectors claim the dish kills up to 73 million sharks each year, with some of them tossed back into the sea to die after their fins are cut off.
But Mr Jenkins took aim at the statistics and pooh-poohed this widely held belief. He said the 73 million figure, attributed to marine scientist Shelley Clarke and cited by shark advocacy groups such as WildAid and Shark Angels, had been twisted to suit their needs.
Dr Clarke herself took to marine sustainability website SeaWeb last year to lambast such misuse of her work. She said she had estimated in 2000 that the fins of 38 million sharks were being traded, although the true figure was likely between 26 million and 73 million.
The three panellists also insist there is no evidence that live finning - cutting sharks' fins off before throwing the sharks back into the sea - is a prevalent practice. 'Although practised by some fishermen, it is illegal, relatively infrequent and condemned by the industry,' said Mr Jenkins.
Mr Ng was not convinced. He cited 2008 data that showed that fins commonly sell for US$250 or more per pound (450g), far more than the measly dollars per pound for shark meat.
In an interview with reporters after the forum, he stuck to his guns: 'We're calling for a temporary ban. Let the shark populations recover, put in place proper management, and make sure that the trade is sustainable before we start consumption again.'
But all four panellists agreed that more information on the sharks' plight is needed. A 2010 report by non-profit group International Union for Conservation of Nature said there is not enough information on 47 per cent of shark and related species to know if they are endangered.
The panellists added that governments need to do more to regulate the trade of sharks. Prof Oakley said this could involve making sure fisheries keep the number of sharks above a mandated minimum level. Sharks could then reproduce at a sustainable rate.
As for Singapore, Mr Jenkins said it could source its fins from sustainable producers. Last year, the Republic imported about 3,500 tonnes of shark's fin, 40 per cent more than the previous year.
The AVA said Singapore abides by the Cites agreement, under which the basking shark, whale shark, great white shark and sawfishes are protected species and their trade is strictly regulated. It allows only licensed fish dealers to import sharks and shark's fin.
Ms Joan Paul, 22, a student who attended the forum, said she will still boycott shark's fin. 'By choosing not to eat shark's fin, you are thinking in the long term. When there's supply for shark's fin, there's bound to be demand,' she said.