To consume or to conserve?

As I was trying cookies and pastry while checking out their food products at the famous Koi Kei in Macau, my brother shouted at me and pointed at something that he knew would gain my attention. True enough, in a glass display cabinet, I could see packets of shark fins. Honestly, if I had not studied conservation and made a decision not to consume shark fin, the sight of shark fins would not have stir up any emotions in me.

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Shark fins are still in demand despite the high price.

It is not until I started to do conservation work on ground, especially in creating awareness through education, that I realised, it is common for someone who does not grow up consuming certain food, such as turtle eggs or shark fin soup, to try to persuade and explain why one should not eat these species. When I talked to a local at Perhentian Islands about turtle egg consumption, my questions was simple. I wanted to understand why do they consume turtle eggs as studies have shown that the turtle populations are in declining trends. The old man looked at me and tried to explain that my question would sound similar to his if he was to ask me why do I eat chicken eggs. From his perspective, turtle eggs have been a food source for the locals for decades or more. In fact, every marine life in the ocean is perceived as food source. From his point of view, even with the consumption of turtle eggs, turtles are still around. His personal reason to the declining turtles population is increased number of boats with propellers which leads to higher turtle mortality rate. Our conversation showed me how conservation is perceived if seen from a different perspective, which also explain why locals still consume turtle eggs. Partly they do not believe turtle eggs consumption is one of the main causes to sea turtle extinction.

I did not grow up eating turtle eggs but shark fin soup. I rarely eat it but it is commonly served during Chinese New Year and at wedding dinners. Years ago, I decided to stop eating shark fin soup after understanding about shark finning. There is a fishwife who pushes a wheelbarrow around the village selling fish. I often see blacktip reef sharks, mostly juveniles, among other fish stocks. Once, over a Malay dinner at her house, I subtly started a conversation about sharks. I briefly made a statement that the number of sharks is reducing and if we continue to catch sharks, they might go extinct. She just smiled and replied that if I felt that way for sharks, then I shoud not be eating fish or other marine life too. From her perspective, sharks are food. I also often see local guys catch sharks, together with other fishes, when they go fishing. Unlike shark fin soup, they consume the whole shark. Many of these village women have continuously, until today, persuade me to try curry shark. Sedap they said, literally translated as delicious. I refuse as I understand the decline of sharks as top oceanic predators is among the most important functional changes in marine system.

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Shocked at first and sad to see a shark carcass.

When someone talks about banning shark fin soup, what is the reason behind it? Is it to protect this species based on what he/she understands about shark conservation? Or due to the cruelty of inhumane shark finning? The article “What shark finning means (and doesn’t mean): a primer and quiz” mentioned that not all sharks are categorized as threatened species. Non-threatened shark species, if caught according to a science-based quota is the goal of responsible shark fisheries management. This makes me wonder how can I tell whether or not the fins served in shark fin soup are supplied through shark finning or well-managed shark fisheries. Many are disgusted about the consumption of shark fin soup and sometimes judge the people who consume. Although easier said than done, I try my best to be neutral and not make any judgement because I have yet, probably, understand or able see things from their perspectives. Nowadays we have a choice in choosing what we eat. In the past, coastal communities relied on the ocean for food source, just as how inland communities had cattle. Unlike cattle that are raised as livestock to supply food for humans, aquaculture is limited to breed only certain fish species. Therefore, we harvest sharks in the wild. This leads to the decline of sharks as their population recovery to overharvesting is slow.

Conservation is on-going and has never been easy. Sometimes I feel it makes more sense to study human pyschology in order to understand human behaviour or the reasons behind an action. As we humans share the same resources as the animals, conflicts are inevitable. Although biologists usually only study every aspects of a species for better conservation management, I think it is also very important to understand how humans fit into the management plan because there are always human-animal interactions, that are too complex to comprehend.

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