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Commentary: Shark's fin soup isn't the only threat to sharks in Southeast Asia

You probably don’t associate sharks with Singapore. But surprisingly, an array can be found in our local waters, with sightings of bull sharks, blacktip reef sharks, bamboo sharks, blackspot sharks and even a baby whale shark. 

The author getting data from a blackspot shark that was caught by a longline. (The animals in the photos were incidentally caught by fisheries, not killed for research.)

The author getting data from a blackspot shark that was caught by a longline. (The animals in the photos were incidentally caught by fisheries, not killed for research.)

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You probably don’t associate sharks with Singapore. But surprisingly, an array can be found in our local waters, with sightings of bull sharks, blacktip reef sharks, bamboo sharks, blackspot sharks and even a baby whale shark. 

While this may come as a surprise to many, almost everyone is aware that sharks are threatened. 

But there remains misconceptions about the threats facing these creatures and what needs to be done to conserve them. 


Campaigns against shark's fin soup have led many to believe that fisheries targeting sharks for their fins are the main (and only) threat to the animal. 

However, from surveys conducted at Singapore’s fishing ports and throughout the region, it has been established that many sharks and rays in Southeast Asia are incidentally caught in fishing gear set for other commercial fish species, like snappers, groupers and tuna. 

In addition, many fisheries are "mix-species", meaning they see value in all or most that they catch, and they don’t necessarily have a "target" species. 

This aligns with findings that globally, most sharks and rays are killed from incidental capture (for example bycatch) in fishing gear, and not in targeted fisheries for their fins. 

So, while it is important to say "no" to shark's fin soup, we need to acknowledge and address the larger issues of general fisheries that continue to incidentally catch sharks, rays, and other marine creatures.  

In Southeast Asia, 72 per cent of assessed shark and ray populations are in decline, with fisheries the primary threat. 

Sharks and rays are now the second-most threatened animal group on Earth, after the amphibians (which don’t get nearly as much attention). 


As part of my research into the dietary habits of the blackspot shark, a small species commonly caught and traded in the region for their meat, I discovered some intriguing insights: Adult females eat a lot of cephalopods such as squid (sotong), adult males eat a lot of fish, and pups predominantly feed on prawns. 

This highlights a critical point often overlooked: To protect threatened animals, we need to protect their prey, which also suffers from commercial fishing. 

Despite good intentions, it seems that the attention garnered from shark fin soup campaigns led many to believe that they are the only species in peril, and the only species which needs protecting. 

But holistic shark conservation needs to go beyond people refusing to consume sharks and their products. An ocean full of sharks, but devoid of everything else, is not a victory, nor is it possible (sharks cannot exist without food!). 

Rather, conservation efforts need to account for the interconnectedness of all living organisms in an ecosystem. We need to take less and eat less from the ocean, and set up Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to safeguard entire ecosystems. 

Within MPAs, fishing and other activities can be restricted or totally banned, giving marine life a reprieve and opportunity to recover.

One study found that the biomass of fish in MPAs is, on average, 670 per cent greater than in adjacent unprotected areas. Fisheries can benefit as well from the "spillover" of bountiful fish from these MPAs to outside areas. 


As you will have ascertained by now, general fisheries in Southeast Asia (and globally) are posing a threat to sharks and our ocean. The issue is that there are simply too many boats chasing too few fish. 

The open-access nature of the ocean and subsidies from governments to make it more affordable for people to go fishing have contributed to this. Socio-economic problems like poverty and a lack of alternative livelihoods drive people into the industry, and a sense of tradition may keep them there.

The author collecting data from a blackspot shark that was caught on a longline. (The animals in the photos were incidentally caught by fisheries, not killed for research.)

Over-efficient and destructive fishing gear like trawls continue to operate, scooping up all in their path (including sharks and rays) and disturbing the seabed. 

An additional strain comes from territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which have ignited competition for natural resources — how can countries even begin to cooperate and protect the ocean if they’re still arguing over who lays claim to what? 

Fish stocks in the South China Sea are now less than half of their levels in the 1950s, and there appears to be little success in halting further loss. 


Collaboration with industry stakeholders is a crucial avenue for preserving our oceans. 

Fishermen and local seafood suppliers in the region possess immense knowledge.

Asking them about fisheries, species’ population trends, supply chains and their opinions on practical approaches to conservation holds huge potential to finding solutions that could work for everyone. 

I have been so fortunate to work with a supplier who gives me sharks and rays incidentally caught by fisheries for my research. The insights I have gained from him about fisheries, sharks and ray populations, and consumer trends have been invaluable. 

Unfortunately, negative publicity around shark fin soup and environmental issues in general has made some stakeholders wary of conservationists. We need to build trust and work together — after all, we both want the same thing, which is a bountiful ocean. 

Regulation of the ocean will always be a challenge, and we cannot sit around and wait. There is growing awareness around sustainability, and consumers are increasingly keen to do the right thing. 

Whether more "sustainable" seafood from fisheries in Southeast Asia can be attained remains debated (it is a complex task, with huge efforts to monitor, reform and enforce). Aquaculture also poses its own, unique set of environmental and welfare problems. 

Singapore is a global leader in the development of cell-grown meats, and this avenue could provide respite for the Earth although some environmental concerns need to be ironed out. 

We can all do our part to reduce the amount of sea life extracted from the ocean by reducing our own demand. As for me, I turned vegetarian at age 11 and will continue to enjoy my "mock" meats and seafood. 


It is important to dispel misconceptions, be fully aware of truths and foster respect and empathy for the creatures that live on our planet. 

For decades, sharks have been sensationalised by the entertainment and news media, which has made us irrationally fear them; my younger self included. 

Thankfully, when I was 14 years old, I watched a programme about hammerhead sharks on Cocos Island, which changed my perception of sharks entirely and led me on my journey to protect them. 

You can be inspired too — an upcoming educational resource is National Geographic’s Sharkfest 2023, which can help both adults and children connect with sharks and learn about their importance in marine ecosystems. 


Closer to home, know that there are several efforts to research and conserve Singapore’s own sharks and rays. 

We have the Sisters’ Island Marine Park which provides a safe haven for all marine creatures.

Researchers are tagging and tracking sharks to understand how they use our seas.

Recreational fishers are being urged to release sharks and rays that are caught and we continue to monitor the fishery ports to understand trade and consumption. 

The human population continues to grow, and non-human populations continue to shrink. The Earth cannot keep up with our demands — the urgency of this situation continues to be highlighted yet our efforts still fall short. 

It is not just sharks that are in trouble, but all life at sea and on land. We all need to do our part to live more sustainably and create safe spaces for animals and marine life alike.


Born and raised in Singapore, Naomi Clark-Shen is a PhD student in the Marine Science programme at James Cook University, studying the small, often-forgotten sharks and stingrays incidentally caught in fishing nets around Southeast Asia.

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