Wednesday, October 31, 2007

DYK Rejsespecial 2007-2008

In April 2006 I did some deep wreck exploration in the Gulf of Thailand from the M/V Trident live-aboard.

A year later, Jamie Macleod, owner & captain of the Trident, asked me if I could help out Dmitri Gorski by letting him use some of my underwater photos taken during that trip. Honored by the request, I of course obliged :o)


This month, Dmitri's five page article about technical diving in Thailand, together with four of my photos, got published in Scandinavia's main dive magazine: DYK (Rejsespecial 2007-2008).

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

PADI

I became a PADI certified diver in 1993 and an instructor three years later. I officially remained a PADI pro till the end of last year, after which I stopped paying for the honour. (read why below)


From 2000 to 2006, I paid my yearly membership fee to PADI Europe (headquartered in Switzerland), even though I lived in Denmark and thus technically belonged to PADI Nordic (headquartered in Sweden). The reason being that I wanted to be kept up-to-date in English, an option not offered by PADI Nordic.

My affiliation to another region was not a problem until 2006, when I tried to order some teaching material from PADI Europe. My online order was processed alright, but got cancelled later on by PADI Europe, which subsequently also decided all by itself to transfer my membership to PADI Nordic. For seven years PADI Europe cashed in my membership fees, sent me self-promoting newsletters, self-congratulatory magazines & eternal guideline updates; but when I actually wanted to use their services to get some teaching done, they suddenly remembered only local headquarters were allowed to sell me anything. As if I care where a manual actually comes from when I order online. A week later I got a welcome letter from PADI Nordic. In Swedish. And I no longer had access to the online shop. So I had to tell my student to get the necessary course material from a Danish dive shop at twice the price.

After having done the theory, we travelled to Thailand to do the actual open water training. While the Thai dive shop we used as a base fully assisted me, PADI however once again left me standing alone & fuming, refusing to accept my instructor credentials for instant online certification of my student. The reason: in order to be able to certify new divers in Thailand you have to be a member of PADI Asia (headquartered in Singapore). Meaning, I guess, I'm supposed to temporarily transfer my affiliation each time I want to teach & certify while on holidays somewhere outside my region?

When a year ago I moved to Germany, PADI Nordic & Europe joined forces and professionally screwed up again. Starting with PADI Nordic ignoring my request for re-transfer to PADI Europe (probably waiting to cash in my membership fee first) and followed by PADI Europe mishandling my membership renewal for 2007 (despite direct e-mail contact). So I stepped out. After 10 years as a PADI pro.

Today, out of the blue, PADI Europe sent me a congratulatory letter, thanking me for my continued support of the organization, significant role in its growth and felicitating me -about one year late- with my tenth anniversary as a PADI member. I guess they haven't realized yet I've left the association. That or they're in total denial. They also assume I must be pleased to know that I'll even be listed in the 2nd quarter "Undersea Journal" in recognition of my commitment. Second quarter? Either it already came out several months ago, or it sure is several months late. Not that it matters, at least I'm not getting that nonsense any longer.

Hyped-up recognition is alas what PADI is very much about: badges for anything, certificates for whatever and pins to prove it.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Stories from the blue

Via X-Ray magazine’s blog I came upon an amazing account by Scott Cassell of an incredible underwater encounter with giant Humboldt squids: Dancing with Demons - definitely not for the faint of heart!

Talking about thrilling experiences, here's a movie to look forward to: Sharkwater, a documentary by Rob Stewart about sharks & us.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Shark finning: One more victim

Barely two months ago I compiled "Shark finning: A soup story", an article about the meaningless extermination of sharks all over the world to satisfy the ever growing -primarily Chinese- demand for shark fin soup.

On the 8th of April 2007, while diving in Raja Ampat, West-Papua, Indonesia, I came face to face with yet another victim of this irrational hunger.


At the end of a wonderful dive along a pristine reef in front of Sauwandarek village on Mansuar island in Raja Ampat, West-Papua, Indonesia, something too white among the colorful corals caught my eye. As I approached and realized what it was, I was once again reminded of the dark side of humanity.


One more shark slaughtered for its fins and carelessly dumped overboard to slowly drown in the shallows.


Judging from its state this one was murdered very recently, probably just the night before by some poor bastard trying to make a living.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Sulawesi & Papua, Indonesia, March-April 2007

Indonesia is one of those destinations I always feel like going back to again and again...


For my fifth visit, I chose two ethnically & culturally very different regions: North-Sulawesi, an old favorite of mine, and West-Papua (former Irian Jaya), that I've wanted to check out ever since I first heard about it several years ago.

travel report

North-Sulawesi: Sahaung island

Blue Bay Divers is a small dive resort owned and run by Anke & Salmon on Sahaung island, a tiny private island right next to Bangka island in northern Sulawesi.

We only spent our trip's first week here, in order to acclimatize and do some warm-up dives, but I wish we could have stayed another week.


With max two divers per guide and max two groups per boat, the diving is as private as can be. The dive guides don't speak much English but know their sites inside out, pointing out anything you might have asked for and showing you again exactly what you saw afterwards in the many fish identification books available for study in the resort.

Sahaung island and it's big brother Bangka offer all kinds of diving, from shore to boat, from muck to reef, from easy to drift. And should that not be enough, the Bunaken National Marine Park and Lembeh strait are only about an hour away by boat.

Right in front of the resort, the small bay offers some pretty good muck diving: juvenile fish of all sorts, elusive mandarin fish, harlequin ghost pipe fish, translucent shrimps, small moray eels, plenty of lion fish of various kinds, reef & estuarine stone fish, crocodile fish, blue spotted stingrays, sea snakes, spiny sea urchins and many more.


Around Bangka there are some really nice spots teeming with soft-corals and huge sponges thanks to the nutrient rich currents, and critters are just waiting to be found: frog fish pretending not to be there, cuttle fish flashing their volatile moods, mantis shrimps scurrying around, orang utan crabs squeezed in bubble corals, squat lobsters hidden in crinoids, scale worms underneath cushion stars, etc. Not to mention the robust ghost pipe fish I found all by myself!


Just a short hop away, mainland Sulawesi's coast also has plenty of very good sites. Below the Paradise pier we found flounders, wasp fish, anemone porcelain crabs, juvenile cat fish all balling together in an ever moving swarm, nudibranchs, etc. And on a nearby reef we saw a winged pipe fish, a leaf scorpion fish and two stone fish, one of them completely dug into the sand with only its eyes and mouth barely visible.

In other words, enough to keep you diving again and again for more. Even though visibility wasn't too great while we were there, varying from 5 to 10m at most, we really enjoyed our dives in the 28°C water.


And in between, the place is just perfect to relax and enjoy the view. The bungalows, all facing the bay, are basic but spacious and clean, each with its own veranda and mandi style bathroom. The Indonesian food is finger-licking delicious. The people friendly and ever helpful. What more could you wish for?

West-Papua: Kri island

While by now there are a couple of seasonal live-aboards covering the region, Papua Diving, owned by Max Ammer, is so far still the only permanent dive operation in Raja Ampat, an archipelago of jungle covered islands just off western West-Papua.

Papua Diving actually consists of two different set-ups: Kri Eco Resort and Sorido Bay Resort, both located on Kri island, a 2-3 hour boat ride from Sorong, West-Papua's main entry point for visiting divers.

Kri Eco Resort caters to the more adventurous and budget conscious divers, who prefer basic close-to-nature non-AC accommodation and don't mind a cold mandi shower. Whereas Sorido Bay Resort is for rich people who can't stand the tropical climate and need to be cooled down and pampered to feel well. Guess in which resort we stayed for two weeks :o)


The diving of course is the same for everybody. Except that the rich people get shaded boats and the poor people get free extra time in the sun while sailing to the various dive spots in the vicinity.

Kri Eco Resort is well managed by Maya, Mayse & Nikson. Maya and her assistant Mayse take care of the general administration and organization. Nikson, in charge of the diving, plans and organizes the daily trips and also briefs the divers about each dive site, as unfortunately the junior guides barely speak any English and are rather shy about assuming control.

We stayed in a naturally aired hut on stilts above the water and were pretty happy about it - despite being rudely outboard-noise awakened and exhaust-gassed out of bed each morning as the dive boats moored nearby to refuel and load the scuba tanks :o(

The food was kind of alright, but not as tasty nor as varied as I've come to expect in spicy Indonesia. And considering the number of people who got sick, in both resorts, I'm afraid the hygienic conditions in the rather primitive kitchens are not as strict as they ought to be, especially in a hot climate.

Contrary to the Sorido Bay Resort, Kri Eco Resort enjoys an unencumbered view to the west, meaning we got fabulous fire-in-the-sky sunset shows almost every evening right from our little pier.


As for the diving... is it really worth all the trouble to get here? Well, read on and make up your own mind.

Raja Ampat: Epicenter of marine biodiversity

Scientists have recorded over five hundred coral species and more than one thousand fish species while diving around Raja Ampat. Thereby justifying this small region's claim as the epicenter of marine biodiversity.

Dr. Gerald R. Allen actually counted a record number of 284 fish species in just one dive... So, if you ever wanted to find and name a new fish after yourself, this is probably a good place to start looking - once you've memorized and can keep apart all those already known to science.

Not being a great marine biologist myself - I'm already happy when I can tell which family a fish belongs to - I can't really say that I actually noticed any reef fish that were new to me. What I did notice though is how vast and vibrant many of the reefs still are here. Boasting fabulous pristine coral gardens swarming with fish of all kinds. Indeed, I've never seen so many beautiful reefs nor such an abundance of fish in my 14 years of diving.


One of the reasons for this incredible biodiversity, is the unique conglomerance of various habitats: small protected bays, shaded sheltering mangroves, sun-soaked shallow reefs and nutrient-rich current swept channels offer ideal conditions for a wide variety of aquatic life forms.

Most of the dive sites (e.g. Cape Kri, Mike's point, Mios Kon, Sardines, Sleeping barracuda, Surgeon fish slope, etc) are within a 10km radius from Kri, and require at most 15' to get there. To reach the more remote spots (e.g. Fam island, Jellyfish bay, Manta station, Mansuar island, Passage, Pulau Dua, the P47D Thunderbolt bomber, etc) may take 30-60' and costs 20-60 Euro extra per diver for fuel.

Cape Kri & surrounding reefs

Cape Kri is definitely a top spot with plenty of fish action - especially when there's a bit of current!


Expect schooling jacks, giant trevally, shy groupers, yellow-tail barracudas, swarming unicorn surgeon fish, groups of sweetlips, a couple of human-wary black & white-tip sharks, hawksbill turtles and of course also the area's most spotted shark: wobbegongs.


On one dive we were even so lucky as to see one of these bearded carpet sharks lazily swimming off from underneath its shelter to settle itself again just a few meters further away in the open.

Not to mention another very famous favorite of the region: pygmy seahorses! Alas not always that carefully pointed out by the guides.

While currents were mostly rather mild during our stay here, we did experience some of nature's water moving power at nearby Sorido wall. Luckily we had our reef-hooks ready to hold on to - for unlike the fish which just hung around there without apparent effort, we wouldn't have had a chance against the surging current flowing over the reef that day.

At high tide it's possible to snorkel along Kri Eco's pier, built atop a very nice reef, and if you're very lucky you might even get to see a small cat or epaulette shark!

Chicken bay & surrounding reefs

While we didn't get to see any evolution defying poultry here, Chicken bay nevertheless is a great spot to get up close and personal with yellow-tail barracudas hovering above sandy patches, bat fish playing domino together, humphead parrot fish crunching away on hard corals, or just hang around and mingle with some grazing surgeon fish.


I even found a sleepy wobbegong, for once facing outward from its lair, hidden behind a curtain of swirling glass fish.

On a smaller scale, we were shown a tiny barely 2cm large octopus trying hard to look like a piece of coral rubble and a small winged pipe fish.

Manta station

Manta station is one of two possible manta sighting points barely 25' away from Kri island. Whether mantas are there when you are of course requires a bit of luck. But lucky we were.

On our first dive here, we briefly saw a white bellied manta passing by shortly after we submerged and then witnessed a black bellied one getting thoroughly serviced for 40' right in front of us bubbling divers.

Every now and then flying above each one of us as it turned around and around its cleaning station. What a wonderful sight!


Five days later we tried our luck again for some more. And this time got two mantas circling together around a cleaning station, a smaller black bellied one and a bigger white bellied one.

Nearby, a yellow leaf scorpion fish acted as colorful back-up entertainer should any diver get bored with the main black & white dance show. A big stingray whirling up clouds of sand in its frantic search for food never got much of a chance besides its acrobatic cousins.


To top it off, as we went for higher grounds towards the end of the dive, four mantas suddenly appeared out of the misty blue right in front of us, gracefully veering off just a few meters away. Whow!

Mansuar island

Mansuar is a large island west of Kri with various good dive spots, like Sauwandarek slope on its south coast and Cape Mansuar on its western point.

Even though it lies right in front of a small village, Sauwandarek slope has a very beautiful reef top. And while visibility elsewhere was rather poor - especially after full moon, we enjoyed relatively clear water here.


Unfortunately I'll always associate this spot with a very sad sight: that of a recently finned shark lying dead in the shallows :o(

Cape Mansuar is home to a special variety of whitish pygmy seahorses known as Hippocampus Denise. A pretty rare find compared to the much more common Hippocampus Bargibanti, to be found both in pink and yellow in this area.

Just off the cape is the channel, a site packed with schooling fish, sweetlips hanging around under table corals, bands of yellow-tail barracudas waiting for launch time and even a couple of patrolling black-tips keeping a safe distance.

Mike's point

Topographically probably the most interesting site in the neighborhood. Offering walls & overhangs covered in soft corals, slopes overgrown with leather corals, swim through rock formations and shallow hard coral gardens.


Several of the gorgonians here host pygmy seahorse families. Sweetlips hang around in small groups. Scorpion fish lie in wait for food to come their way. Sea snakes wave by. Nudibranchs patiently pose for any wannabe National Geographic photographers.

Pulau dua

We were so lucky as to have Nikson with us when we dived here. With over 10000 dives, he definitely knows the area inside out, and especially the sites around here, as they used to be the main spots when Papua Diving was still located on nearby Wai island.


Not so good though is that as we approached Pulau Dua, Nikson asked us to disembark asap, in order for him to chase some fleeing fishermen, to check whether they'd been dynamite fishing - an utterly devastating practice unfortunately still too common even here :o(


During the dive we had a big marble stingray flying by and coming around again for a closer look, and we spotted two wobbegongs, one of which was perfectly posed on top of a coral, begging for a cover photo.


We did not get to snorkel with mantas, nor do some whale watching near Wai island, as supposedly is possible every now and then. But Nikson spotted some floating sargassum sea weed and plastic trash on the way back, among which we got to swim with several small sargassum frog fish (5-8cm) - a first for me!

Surgeon fish slope

Loads of schooling surgeon fish, gangs of yellow-tail barracudas, a family of humphead parrot fish, hawksbill turtles, big moray eels, bat fish getting cleaned, giant trevally, black-tips passing by, ...

Education?

Despite his many years here and his apparent concern for the environment, Max Ammer seems to neglect an obvious starting point: basic education of his people.

Some areas in particular are in serious, not to say desperate, need of improvement: hygiene standards for kitchen personnel, rules of conduct and basic communication skills for dive guides.


Having your dive guides (1) bending gorgonians out of shape to show pygmy seahorses, when not shaking the tiny little creatures into cardiac-arrest, just so as to please some eager photographer flashing away like crazy, (2) pulling wobbegongs by their tail out of their lairs for better viewing, when not outright harassing them into swimming away, or just (3) carving words into corals out of boredom, can hardly be justified in any way by anybody.

Guides should at all times behave in an exemplary fashion - even more so in an environmentally so unique area.

Not only that, they should also enforce safe and responsible practices to avoid accidents.

Indonesia: The dark side

⊗ It doesn't take much scrutiny to see through the tropical paradise illusion of tourist information brochures and travel advertisements. While at first sight a relatively peaceful country - only shaken up by devastating earthquakes and tsunamis every now and then - Indonesia does have some serious human rights issues and nature conservation problems.

⊗ The main island Java in effect is nothing but a greedy colonial power ruling and exploiting the surrounding islands with total contempt. Draining them from their riches (e.g. wood, gold, oil) without putting anything back into the local economies. All that of course with the hypocritical taciturn approval and even active help from industrial nations.

⊗ Entire marine ecosystems are continuously threatened by international mining companies dumping toxic wastes directly into the sea.

⊗ Destructive fishing practices are still all too common all over the archipelago: (1) dynamite fishing is causing a lot of long-term reef damage, (2) live fish trade is threatening the survival of endangered species like the Napoleon wrasse, (3) cyanide fishing is ruining already hard hit habitats, (4) finning is decimating the few remaining sharks.

⊗ Corruption in Indonesia unfortunately is standard modus operandi on any official level. Meaning you can get away with anything as long as the bribe is adequate.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Foreword about fish bombing

Fish bombing, aka dynamite fishing or blast fishing, is an extremely destructive fishing method used by fishermen in Indonesia and the Philippines among others.

When a school of fish is found, a primitive home-made bomb is dropped into the water. The longer the fuse, the deeper the bomb sinks before exploding. The shock wave literally knocks out any fish in the vicinity, some of which may float up to the surface, but most just sink to the bottom, their swim-bladders ruptured, their spines broken, to be collected at leisure by diving fishermen.

Besides being totally indiscriminate, bombing over shallow reefs also completely destroys the fish's natural habitat.

October 1994: Somewhere north of Boano island in the Moluccas, Indonesia, I personally witnessed the devastation caused underwater by this illegal practice. An otherwise pristine reef suddenly turned into an utterly deserted waste of dead coral rubble, without a single living creature in sight. As if an atomic bomb had been dropped there. A death zone for many years to come.

March 2005: While diving around Sipadan, Sabah, Malaysia, we felt several shock waves of distant underwater detonations. As if a very heavy object had been dropped into the water just above us. According to our dive guide, the explosions occurred somewhere in the Philippines.

March 2007: A good friend of mine was diving around the Banggai islands, Sulawesi, Indonesia, when he stumbled upon a recently bombed reef, still littered with dead fish. Below are his well argumented letter of protest and some of his photos as sent to the department of fisheries in Manado, Sulawesi, Indonesia.

April 2007: As we reached a dive site near Pulau Dua, Raja Ampat, West-Papua, Indonesia, our dive guide asked us to quickly disembark on a nearby island so he could chase some fleeing fishermen. To check whether they were bomb fishing... According to him it's fairly easy to tell whether a fish was bombed or not. However there's no effective control of any kind either at sea or in the fish markets. Fishermen who somehow do get caught red-handed, at most spend a symbolic night in jail, after which they can go on with their fishy business as usual. It's just a matter of paying the right amount to who-ever happens to be in charge that day.

Fish bombing: A letter of protest

Att. Bapak George Ruata
Dinas Perikanan dan Kelautan Sulawesi Utara
Kompleks Perkantoran Pertanian
Jalan Manado Tanwangko, Desa Kalasey
KEC. PINELENG 95361
Indonesia - Sulut


To whom it may concern,

My name is Bart De Ridder. I am a medical doctor from Belgium. As a passionate diver I have been so fortunate to discover the underwater beauty of Asia and in particular that of Indonesia, which has the richest reefs with greatest bio-diversity in the world, a pure treasure.

On my latest trip to North & Central Sulawesi (5-26 March 2007) I witnessed the horrible consequences of an illegal fishing method: "fish bombing" or "dynamite fishing". A technique that uses a bottle, fertilizers and a fuse. This "bomb" is then thrown into the water. The explosion creates an enormous shock wave, killing fish and destroying coral reefs. The explosion can be heard for many kilometres underwater. In the past I have seen many reefs destroyed, but on this particular occasion I dived a reef that had been bombed just minutes before.

Date: March 15, 2007
Time: Briefing: 8:45; Dive: 9:27 - 9:52. So the bombing must have taken place between 8:45 and 9:20.
Dive site: Labobo's Dream. The site is south of Labobo island (Banggai islands), in front of the village called Lipulalomo.
Coordinates : 01° 47' 637 S - 123° 41' 404 E.

I am probably not the first one to point out this problem to you and you are probably already aware of it, but it needs your urgent attention right now.


For so many reasons this is an unacceptable fishing method:

• It is a very destructive technique: the shock wave blows apart coral reefs, leaving nothing but rubble. The normal structure of a reef is destroyed and it is practically impossible for corals to re-grow on this rubble. Hence once a reef is bombed it will stay like a dead place for many years on end. Marine life disappears in these places.

• This technique seriously affects the future of the next generation of local fishermen: For the reason mentioned bombed areas remain dead for many years. So, if fishermen continue to use this technique their very own children will have no more reefs to fish on.

• It is a very non-selective method of fishing: As you can see on the pictures this technique kills whatever fish happens to be near the bomb: both adult and juveniles, both fish that are fit for consumption and fish that cannot be eaten. This technique disturbs the normal ability of reproduction as the juvenile fish do not have time enough to reach adulthood.

• It is a very dangerous technique for the fishermen: many get severely injured or may even get killed when a bomb explodes in their hands. After the fish have been bombed they need to be collected. Divers go down without proper dive training and without proper dive gear, instead they stay down too long too deep with just a hose connected to a compressor on the surface which supplies them with air. No wonder why so many fishermen suffer from decompression sickness and get crippled or paralysed at very young age.

• It is dangerous for divers: during my trip I got to know Dr. Alejandro Vagelli (Director of Science & Conservation of the New Jersey Academy for Aquatic Sciences↑). He is a world specialist on the Banggai Cardinalfish and established two protective, non-fishing zones together with the Indonesian Government. During his last survey in March 2007 Dr. Vagelli got almost killed because a fisherman was about to throw a bomb at the exact spot where Dr. Vagelli was diving and filming a big school of fish. Imagine what would have happened if that fisherman had not seen Dr. Vagelli...

Each and every reason above is by itself reason enough to condemn this fishing technique.


Fishermen who are caught in the act of fish bombing should be punished. There should also be enough and regular Police Patrol so that other fishermen are not tempted to try it again.

But punishment is not enough. Local communities and children at school should be educated about the richness of their sea and its reefs. They should be made aware of the horrible and long-lasting consequences of fish bombing. Education will help them to find alternative and better ways of fishing.

As a passionate diver I am asking you to protect the seas and the reefs, but on a much bigger scale it is your responsibility to protect the future of your Country and that of your children.
Please stop all other illegal and destructive fishing activities e.g. live fish trade (Napoleon wrasses, groupers), shark finning, etc.

Thank you for your attention and hoping that you will take appropriate action to protect your Seas and Reefs.

Yours Sincerely,
Dr. Bart De Ridder, M.D.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Shark finning: A soup story

It all started a long time ago with a bowl of soup. Not just any soup of course, but a two thousand year old Chinese delicacy, served at special occasions like wedding feasts, birthday parties and festive banquets. Not because of its exquisite flavor or exceptional nutritional value, but as a symbol of wealth and prosperity. In other words, a status symbol soup, where the size of its tasteless but pricey main ingredient matters a lot indeed. For the bigger it is, the more money the host must have dished out. You see, shark fin soup is all about prestige. Not about good taste.



While demand for this cartilaginous broth supposedly has dropped in Hong Kong, until a few years ago the main trade market in shark fins, it is now exploding in economically booming China. Since time immemorial a very popular place, a lot of its new middle-class mouths are now demanding some symbolic respect in the form of a bowl of soup.

With single fins going for 100 USD or more (up to 15000 USD for whale shark fins!) and bowls of shark fin soup costing up to 200 USD in up-scale restaurants all over the world, fin business is an extremely lucrative trade, valued at a couple of billion USD. And, just as China's wealthy class, business is growing.

The demand for shark fins is already such that finning is going on everywhere. Ruthlessly. Excessively. Out of control.

• Not just in Asian waters. But in every sea and ocean on this wet planet of ours. The blue shark, whose fins are first choice according to the FAO, is the world's most abundant and heavily fished pelagic shark. Still, despite a decline in population of more than half in the North Atlantic, it is only classified as near threatened. As long as there's money to be made, mercy is not an option.

• Not just in unregulated international waters but also illegally in supposedly protected national marine parks like the Galapagos (Ecuador) and Cocos (Costa Rica), to name but just two.

• Not just by Asian fleets (from China, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Philippines, etc), but also by European (from Spain, Norway, UK, etc) and American fleets (from Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, USA, Mexico, etc) among others (from Australia, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Fiji, etc). In short, everybody's having a feeding-frenzy in the same bowl. As long as it lasts. The EU for example supplies 27% of all fins imported into Hong Kong.

Entire fishing fleets are out there to catch any sharks they can, slice off their fins and throw the now helpless fish back into the water to drown. Brutal but efficient. Time is money. And so is storage space. At up to 700 USD/kg for the fins, it's not worth it to keep the carcasses for their low value meat.

Highest on the hit list are blue sharks, hammerheads, silky sharks and thresher sharks. But of course any other sharks will do too, whether coastal or pelagic, endangered or not. There's no discrimination in this chop-chop business.

Even worse, these I'm-just-making-a-living people don't just catch mature animals but also young ones, thus preventing already depleted populations to recover. A slow process at best, as most shark species mature late and reproduce slowly. Not surprisingly, over the last 15 years many shark populations have declined by 70 to 90%. In other words, systematic extermination. Just because some of us are having a celebration and absolutely need to impress the guests.

For some shark species the economical situation's bad enough, for them to have been officially classified as bankrupt endangered by CITES: the basking-, whale-, and great white shark for example are finning against time. In reality, all are threatened. After having survived for over 400 million years.



A fairly recent report, based on six year old data, by Imperial College London researchers, states that the number of sharks being killed to satisfy the increasing hunger for shark fin soup is three to four times higher than previously thought and that some shark species are at serious risk. If that isn't a wonderful example of British understatement I don't know what is.

According to their independent estimates of annually traded shark fins, between 26 and 73 million sharks are killed each year. A lot more than what is being reported to the FAO - who previously naively estimated that only about ten million sharks were harvested each year. But then, most fishing is unregulated, uncontrolled and unreported. So how would they know?

These new numbers are based on fins traded at Hong Kong auctions, where an estimated 50% of all the fins are sold. These numbers do not take into account all catches. Who knows how many more sharks (1) fall victim of unwanted unrecorded by-catch by fleets targeting other species, (2) are sold on black markets - dealing in endangered species among others, (3) are being killed just for sport by assholes trophy hunters collecting jaws, (4) are actually caught for their meat and consumed locally or (5) are used for natural medicines.

Which is why some conservationists claim the number of sharks slaughtered every year is more likely to be as high as 150 million.



These are of course all just numbers. Guesses that, as soon as they're published, always are rejected or discredited by some lobby organization or other. Whether because they're too low or too high.

But while they argue about estimated numbers, the actual number of living sharks is decreasing every bloody day. Everywhere, sharks are disappearing from otherwise vibrant reefs and have become a rare sight at best in many places.

So... whenever you do see a shark, please don't kill it if it's still alive and don't eat it if it's alas already dead.

Thanks, TM

Source material about shark finning

→ Science News, 04/11/2006: "New Estimates of the Shark-Fin Trade"
... one Hong Kong fin trader recently told [Clarke from Imperial College London]: "I think the real fin trade is three times what you estimated." ...
... A disturbing fact gleaned from the Hong Kong auctions, the researchers say, is that many of the fins being traded come from immature animals. Unlike most fish, sharks may take up to 20 years before they reproduce for the first time. Moreover, sharks bear few young at a time -in many cases only two to four- and, typically, only every few years or so. Harvesting sharks before they've reproduced limits the chance that already depleted shark populations will recover. ...
→ Imperial College London, 25/10/2006: "Sharks in danger from fashion for fin soup"
... results show that between 26 and 73 million sharks are killed each year ...
... The species most at risk of being killed for their fins include blue shark, hammerheads and silky sharks, but many other species are also used. ...
→ National Geographic, 12/10/2006: "38 Million Sharks Killed for Fins Annually, Experts Estimate"
... The shark-fin industry, concentrated in a few Asian trading centers, is secretive and wary of any attempts to regulate, or even investigate, its practices. ...
→ The Guardian, 31/08/2006: "Sharks pay high price as demand for fins soars"
... In the fish markets of Asia, the tailfin from a basking shark can fetch nearly 10000 USD ...
... Demand for the delicacy is rising fast, and at up to 100 USD a bowl, fisheries around the world are in open competition to supply more than 10000 tonnes of fins to Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore every year. ...
... According to the conservationists, finning is exacerbating a crisis in global shark populations, some of which have already plummeted by more than 90% since the advent of industrialised fishing. Records from fisheries published in 2003 revealed that numbers of thresher sharks have fallen by 75% in just 15 years through overfishing. ...
... The majority of sharks caught for their fins are the blue sharks, threshers and hammerheads of more exotic waters, but North Atlantic species, including the porbeagle, angel, shortfin mako and spiny dogfish - sold in British fish and chip shops as rock salmon - are also under threat. ...
... Spain, home to one of the largest fisheries in the world that catches 50000 tonnes of sharks per year and supplies nearly one third of all shark fins on the Hong Kong market. ...
→ The Independent, 25/06/2006: "FINS FOR SALE: Galapagos sharks are under threat due to growing demand for £100-a-bowl soup in Chinese restaurants"
... Despite bans on the trade in fins, conservationists believe that in the past five years the fins of more than 1.7 million sharks have been exported from Ecuador - and the Galapagos region accounted for more than 80 per cent of those. ...
... Leonor Stjepic of the Galapagos Conservation Trust yesterday warned that the shark populations of the islands' waters were in dramatic decline. ...
... [Finning] is wreaking havoc on the marine reserve that surrounds the Galapagos and is home to 33 shark species. Of those, the hammerhead, the blue, the thresher, the black tip, the mako and the Galapagos are being hit hardest. ...
→ United Nations, 18/05/2006: "Overfishing causes dramatic decline in stocks"
... more than 50 per cent of the highly migratory oceanic sharks ... are overexploited or depleted. ...
→ The New York Times, 05/01/2006: "Hidden Cost of Shark Fin Soup: Its Source May Vanish"
... Some sharks, like the hammerhead and the great white, have been reduced by upwards of 70 percent in the last 15 years, while others, like the silky white tip, have disappeared from the Caribbean. ...
... Fins sell for as much as 700 USD per kilogram in Asia, making big sharks worth thousands of dollars. ...
... With the waters off Asia largely depleted, fishermen are focusing on regions that still swarm with sharks, like the cold, deep waters of the Pacific from Peru north to Central America. ...
→ Natural History Museum: "Jaws: The natural history of sharks"
... All over the world, sharks are big business, and over 150 million are slaughtered each year as the demand for shark products increases: sharks are prime targets for sports anglers; shark meat is low in saturated fats and high in polyunsaturated fats so shark steaks have been replacing red meat on sale in supermarkets; shark-liver oils are added to cosmetics and health-care products because they are the nearest inexpensive oils to natural skin oils; shark is turned into luxury leather for shoes, handbags and wallets; shark teeth are used as ornaments and in jewellery; shark cartilage can be a substitute for human skin to make artificial skin for burns victims; shark corneas have been used as successful substitutes for human corneas; a course of freeze-dried shark cartilage pills is claimed to arrest the growth of tumours; but by far the biggest and most lucrative market is dried fins for making into shark fin soup. ...
... Once a rare delicacy, consumed only by Chinese aristocracy, it is today a gourmet food on sale, for up to 150 USD a bowl, in specialist restaurants worldwide. Such is the demand for fins and the remuneration so great, unscrupulous fishermen catch sharks, cut off their fins and throw their living bodies back into the sea, where they cannot move or swim and either starve to death or drown. This barbaric practise is known as 'finning' ...
... With all this commercial interest, the temptation is for fishermen to catch every shark they can find, no matter what the biological or economic consequences. ...

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Check & try excursion

Düsseldorf not being just around the corner, we decide to go to Munich on a check & try excursion to various diveshops, in stead of visiting the huge boot watersports fair up north, where I could easily spend a couple of days browsing the multitude of stands brimming with dive equipment & gadgets, in the process most probably ending up succumbing to the temptation of acquiring just a few more bits & pieces of extraneous gear. Maybe next year I'll get to go back to wonderland...

From Sonthofen it's about two hours by train to München HBF. With a Bayern Ticket, costing 27€ and valid for up to five persons, we can travel the whole day within Bavaria (= south Germany), with unlimited use of any bus, tram, metro or train! It snowed last night and everything seems to be covered with a thin layer of powder sugar. Maybe this time it's for real?

First stop: Gerda's dive shop, a typical small scuba store fully packed with goodies. My eyes are pulling me all over the place and I've got a hard time getting focused on our primary objective. That is, until I get it in my hands: the Reef Rider, a wing-type travel BCD from Aeris. It fits Petra like a glove and while a bit small, it feels pretty snug on me too. Perfect fit indeed. Very clean uncluttered front. Breast strap. Reflective strips. Eight small plastic D-rings (in stead of heavy stainless-steel ones so loved by tekkies). Two small but useable pockets unencumbered by the two ditchable weight pockets positioned near the hip sides. Two removable trim pockets located on the cam-band. The four weight pockets together should be good for up to 10kg of lead. More than enough for tropical diving. Besides the inflation/deflation hose, there's one dump valve on the lower left side. Thanks to it's minimalistic design, the Reef Rider, at about 3kg, is very light compared to standard jackets - another definite plus. The only minus is it's rather limited lift capacity of only 24lbs in size M. Though it should be enough for warm water diving, I'd feel a bit more comfortable with a few pounds more, as with the 32lbs in size L. All in all, from a dry point of view, a recommendable jacket that I'd very much like to test underwater.

Lunch of the day in the -where else- Wassermann café-bar-restaurant.

Second stop: Tauchsport Manta, another small dive store, where we want to check out some of its second-hand stuff: a Bare 5mm wetsuit and a Cressi S111 jacket. Unfortunately the suit's too tight for Petra and the jacket (size XS), while nicely built, a bit too small, too bulky and too heavy.

Third stop: TTS Sport Kaindl, a modern sports shop with a great selection of Camaro & Mares wetsuits and various jackets among other things. But nothing that fits the missus.

Coffee & muffin break in Starbucks for a quick recapitulation of today's findings. For while we didn't get to buy anything, we certainly learned a lot and eliminated quite a few options.

Stroll around München's city center before heading back to the train station and returning home. Without even having bought a dive magazine! I guess I'll just have to get my fix online then.