Products from threatened species of sharks and rays sold in S’pore: Study
SINGAPORE — Shops in Singapore have been found to sell meat, fins and other products derived from endangered and vulnerable species of sharks and rays. The finding, made by researchers who did DNA sequencing and matched the results against databases, has prompted a call for active monitoring of the retail trade and better labelling of products here.
SINGAPORE — Shops in Singapore have been found to sell meat, fins and other products derived from endangered and vulnerable species of sharks and rays.
The finding, made by researchers who did DNA sequencing and matched the results against databases, has prompted a call for active monitoring of the retail trade and better labelling of products here.
Monitoring the trade would require the authorities to check if retailers have obtained the appropriate permits under an international agreement that ensures trade does not threaten wildlife species with extinction.
Meanwhile, better product labels will help consumers to be aware of the sources of goods they are buying, said Assistant Professor Huang Danwei of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) department of biological sciences.
“Consumption of these goods is a personal choice, but we believe that with education and by providing the public with accurate information about the status of wild species being consumed, more people will demand that the goods be derived from sustainable sources,” said Asst Prof Huang, one of the authors of the study, which was published last month.
Shark and ray populations are declining and the study stated that an estimated 100 million sharks are caught each year.
Between December last year and February this year, the researchers collected 207 tissue samples of shark and ray products. They were purchased from 20 retail sources including grocery stores, wholesale markets, wet markets and Traditional Chinese Medicine shops.
The samples consisted of dried shark fin, shark meat, shark cartilage and ray gill plate, said Dr Neo Mei Lin, a research fellow at the NUS’ Tropical Marine Science Institute and another study author.
Gill plates enable rays to filter plankton from the water, but they are prized in the traditional medicine trade as health tonics or cures for various illnesses.
The researchers positively identified 173 of the samples (84 per cent).
- They belonged to 28 shark and ray species.
- Twelve of the species were listed as endangered or vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
- Eight species were listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).
Appendix II-listed species can be traded commercially with Cites permits, said the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).
Export permits for Cites Appendix II species may be issued only if the specimen was legally obtained and there is evidence that the export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild, said Dr Madhu Rao of the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the study authors. In Singapore, an import permit is required by law, she said.
The researchers found 16 products that were mis-labelled and Dr Rao noted that there are no current requirements to accurately label products to indicate which species they used.
“The shark and ray trade is notorious for mislabelling food stuff and dried samples are particularly problematic as most distinguishing features of species are lost,” she said.
Yet, the accurate identification of caught species is needed to set appropriate catch quotas and management strategies, as well as correct designations under IUCN and Cites, other studies have noted.
CONSUMERS MAY BE EATING THREATENED SPECIES
The study does not suggest there is illegal trade taking place – rather, that people may be consuming threatened or vulnerable species, said Ms Naomi Clark-Shen, one of the authors.
Because the dates that the products were traded are not determined, the Cites-protected species could have entered Singapore before there were regulations on their trade, she said.
Nonetheless, the “frequent occurrence” of several species that are endangered, vulnerable or Cites trade-regulated “should be of concern to local management and enforcement authorities”, said Dr Rao.
The AVA said it monitors imports and exports, retail outlets and online sources.
It manages trade of Cites-listed sharks and rays through several channels including a surveillance programme on shark fin shipments, as well as sampling and DNA analysis to ensure species declarations are accurate, a spokesperson said.
“We investigate credible feedback, collaborate with other enforcement agencies, and will not hesitate to take action against offenders (such as through the confiscation of products, composition fines, and prosecution),” she said.
The authority did not elaborate on the frequency of sampling and DNA analysis, or provide figures on wrongly declared species.
But it said the last case of mis-labelling was detected after sampling and DNA analysis in 2015, and the last detected case of illegal import was in 2003.
WHAT SHOULD LABELS INCLUDE?
In a report last year on the shark and ray trade in Singapore by the World Wide Fund for Nature and wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, the Republic was named the world’s second-largest importer and re-exporter of shark fin in terms of value, and the 14th-largest importer of shark meat by volume.
The study also suggested a considerable domestic market for ray products here.
According to the AVA, Singapore imported 3,600 tonnes of shark products last year – lower than the 4,100 tonnes imported in 2016 and the 4,200 tonnes in 2015. They included live, chilled, frozen, canned and prepared products.
The imported quantity of ray products has also decreased in the last three years, from 1,600 tonnes in 2015 to 1,300 tonnes in 2017, AVA figures showed.
Dr Neo said product labels should include information such as the commercial and scientific name of the species, whether they were farmed or caught at sea, where they were caught, the type of fishing gear used and whether the product has been defrosted. There should also be a “best before” date, she said.
More dining establishments have taken shark’s fin off their menus in recent years, and consumers such as Ms Wong P L told TODAY that information on labels would influence her buying decision.
“Maybe the younger consumers would read the labels, although I think more buyers (of such products) are older folk who may not,” said the 33-year-old, who works in air freight procurement.
“Although labels are useful, checks should be done at an earlier stage and endangered species shouldn’t be imported in the first place,” added Ms Wong, who is holding her wedding dinner in April next year and recently decided not to serve shark’s fin soup to guests.
Some shark and ray species found on sale:
- Spinetail devil ray (Mobula japanica): It was the most common ray identified in the study. A near-threatened species, it is listed under Cites Appendix II. Populations are thought to be fragmented. They have low reproductive output, a long gestation period and slow growth, said Dr Rao. This means once their populations are depleted, even if population recovery is possible, it will be extremely slow.
- Scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini): An endangered species that is listed under Cites Appendix II. It is a coastal and semi-oceanic hammerhead shark that is targeted in fisheries but also ends up as bycatch, according to the IUCN.
- Several species of guitar fish: They include the Giant guitarfish (Rhynchobatus djiddensis), the Spotted guitarfish (Rhinobatos punctifer) and the Bowmouth guitarfish (Rhina ancylostoma). Guitar fish are a family of rays, said Dr Neo. They are especially vulnerable to overfishing because of their low fecundity and very low growth rates, said Dr Rao.