Friday, July 24, 2009

Sorry, NO sharks' fin soup at my wedding

Life as a marine biologist in a small town in northern Borneo was never dull. Early morning on 16 August 2007, we received a phone call from the District Officer. He said there was a large fish of some sort that was found off Pitas in a weakened condition and was dragged back to Kudat by the fishermen who came upon it. He suggested that we rush to the scene and take stock of the situation. As my colleagues and I piled into the field vehicle, my mind raced with excitement. The District Officer mentioned that the creature had white spots. The fish might in fact be a whale shark, Rhyncodon typus.

In 5 minutes, we arrived at the jetty of Kampung Air. The sight of at least a hundred locals, young and old, lining the road toward the jetty, proved that this fish had become a star attraction. And lo, in the murky shallows there floated the whale shark. I had never seen one before and was hoping against hope that it would be alive but clearly it was dead.

Rob and I started asking the fishermen questions. Who found it? Where and what time was it found? What happened, how did it die? The fishermen who found the whale shark answered our questions in a guarded manner; perhaps worried that we were the authorities. Shortly after we arrived, the real authorities arrived: Sabah Department of Fisheries as well as the Sabah Wildlife Department.

Armed with a camera I started taking photos of the shark and the fishermen held it up for me enthusiastically. There was even a festive atmosphere as more and more people gathered to view the spectacle. For a fleeting moment, I was worried if the rickety jetty could support the weight of so many people.

Pretty soon I was not content to just look at the fish from the jetty. I wanted to touch it. In my quick-dry track pants and skin suit, I was dressed for the occasion. Without hesitation, I jumped into the dirty water. I knew the men from Sabah Department of Fisheries, and together in the waist-deep water we measured the length of the shark, determined its sex and took tissue samples. The shark was a juvenile male about 6 m long. Its skin, as with other sharks, felt like sand paper. Sharks' scales have a hook-like structure and that is the reason why people can get injured just by being grazed by a fast-moving shark.
We inspected the shark closely to figure out what killed it. CSI, hah! On its tail fin and head were some abrasions and brown paint. It seemed unlikely that it would have run into a boat. Perhaps it was caught in a net then drowned. As it was dragged back to Kudat, the shark may have scrapped against the bottom of the boat, where it came into contact with anti-fouling paint that is usually rust-colored.

The whale shark is world’s largest fish. It is found in tropical waters and swims long distances. The poor shark that died that day was just a young one, for an adult could grow as long as 20 metres. Perhaps the fella was swimming with its family to Sorsogon, Philippines, where they aggregate in large numbers. You’d be glad to know that these giants feed mostly on plankton and fish; divers have found them to be gentle and harmless. I guess we humans are their greatest predators. Whale sharks along with other species of sharks are being hunted in great numbers every year. That’s why at my wedding reception this year I will not serve sharks’ fin soup. Who knows, my guests might thank me also if they know that sharks are known to accumulate heavy metals such as mercury in their flesh.

Picture courtesy of Robecca Jumin