In a ‘tropical paradise’ reef sharks get slaughtered wholesale

In a ‘tropical paradise’ reef sharks get slaughtered wholesale

Apex predators like sharks play an important role in regulating species dynamics in their marine ecosystems.

Blacktip reef sharks are known to be abundant in some parts of their range, yet pictures of a large number of the marine predators being sold openly at a fish market on the popular resort island of Phuket in Thailand have sparked outrage among environmentally conscious Thais and concerns among local conservationists.

Apex predators like sharks play an important role in regulating species dynamics in their marine ecosystems.  In areas where the number of shark diminishes or their species distribution changes, manifest shifts take place in the composition of species and their abundance.

For instance, in a recent study done in some coastal areas of the United States researchers found that after the number of blacktip reef sharks declined sharply, the population of cownose rays, their main prey, began to increase. When there were no predators to keep them in check, cownose rays could reproduce unchecked and procedeed to decimate scallops over large areas, leading to the latter’s disappearance.

Scallops and other bivalves act as water filters in their ecological systems by feeding on plankton and other organic materials, which helps maintain water quality. With most of these natural filters now absent, microscopic algae or algae-like bacteria began to grow rapidly in local waters, triggering algae blooms. These in turn depleted the levels of oxygen in the water, resulting in the collapse of local ecological systems.

In short, harm to the local population of blacktip reef sharks, which despite the fearsome reputation of sharks are usually docile creatures, caused harm to their entire ecosystem.

These moderately sized sharks, whose name comes from the black coloration on the tops of their dorsal, caudal and pectoral fins, are listed as near-threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Yet in Thailand, they are not protected animals. Local fishermen, therefore, can hunt and sell them in markets freely.

And so despite the outrage over the photos of them being sold in large numbers in Phuket, an island routinely dubbed “a tropical paradise,” there isn’t much that can be done.

“At this stage, the blacktip reef shark has not been classified as a protected animal,” explained Watcharin Rattanachoo, chief of the Phuket Provincial Fisheries Office. “I understand the photos may hurt people who love animals, but the fishing and selling of these sharks is not illegal in Thailand.”

Conservationists, however, are warning that if a large number of the sharks continue to be hunted without limits, eventually the predators will vanish from local waters, which could lead to the collapse of some of the country’s marine ecosystems.

“Blacktip reef sharks and many other sharks are not protected animals [in Thailand]. I’ve tried to push for this many times. I hope we can progress, especially for hammerhead sharks and leopard sharks, whose numbers are rapidly falling,” said Thon Thamrongnawasawat, an expert on marine life.

“Sharks are important to the ecosystem and the food chain. They are also important for tourism,” he added.

This story first appeared on Sustainability Times


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