The Shark Trade In Tourist Thailand

An independent study shows that Thailand caught almost 25 tons of shark from 2000-2008.

Koh Samui — the very name of this Thai island evokes daydreams of crystal seas and pure white sands for many travelers; it’s a palm-tree paradise, which draws thousands of visitors to its shores each year. In many ways, the island lives up to the postcard promises — the waters are indeed turquoise, and its beaches largely pristine. But there’s a dark side to every paradise, and for me, Koh Samui’s became apparent when I visited the local Thai market. I have been to many markets during my time in Thailand, and seen first-hand the evidence of the systematic stripping of the ocean that takes place throughout Asia. I have seen basins full of crabs, and rows upon rows of stacked prawns; I have seen buckets of scallops and sad, flaccid sea cucumbers. It was on Koh Samui, however, that I saw the first dead sharks. Each of the seafood vendors’ stalls featured several carcasses, mostly juvenile grey reef sharks, numbering around 20 in total. Although these numbers are certainly not the product of mass-fishing methods, and are negligible in comparison with the slaughter evident in the streets of Hong Kong, it was enough for me to start looking into Thailand’s shark trade.


I started with the Thai traders themselves, asking if they knew what species of shark they were selling, where they had come from and how many they sold per week. This didn’t get me far, since my Thai is slightly worse than the traders’ English. My general impression, though, was that the men and women who run these stalls do not see shark as any different from the other fish that they sell; certainly, the concept of different shark species was lost on them. One woman told me that she sells most of her shark to the island’s restaurants, and when I returned the next day all of her stock from the previous day was gone, replaced by what looked like a juvenile bull shark. It is impossible to get angry with the traders. Thailand is the 12th worst country in the world in terms of shark-catch statistics. But these are poor people, making a living in the only way they know how, and I believe that it is ignorance rather than greed that is responsible for the part they play in the abysmal statistics. Shark meat is one of the cheapest products for sale in the fish market, at only 80 baht (US$2.50) per kilo. I was offered an entire carcass for just 140 baht.

Ten years ago, statistics showed that Thailand attracted 200,000 dive tourists each year, a number that has surely grown exponentially in the last decade. According to a more recent study led by Andres Cisneros-Montemayor of the University of British Columbia, the shark-watching industry in Asia generates US$30.5 million per year, and Thailand of course benefits from that income. But there are no existing management procedures for sharks in Thai waters, and Koh Tao, one of the country’s most famous dive destinations, is not a marine protected area. The dive industry is Koh Tao’s single biggest source of income, reflected by the over 60 operators on the island. One of Koh Tao’s biggest attractions to divers is the possibility of spotting whale sharks, blacktip reef sharks, grey reef sharks and bull sharks. With Cisneros-Montemayor’s study suggesting that expenditures in the shark watching industry could double in the next twenty years, a live shark is clearly worth more than a dead one, at least at a societal level.

Unfortunately, the Thai government disagrees. In March of this year, Bangkok hosted the 16th Conference of the Parties for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). At the summit, Thailand voted against the proposition to protect two species of manta ray and seven species of shark, with Fisheries Department director-general Wimol Jantrarotai saying that protection of these species would “hurt national interests.” He also labeled as “inaccurate” a report by his own government to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2010 that estimated Thai shark catch for that year to weigh in at 9,948 tons.


An independent study shows that Thailand caught almost 25 tons of shark from 2000-2008, with neighboring countries Malaysia and Indonesia responsible for a further 27 and 121 tons respectively. All three South East Asian countries are currently in the top twenty of a list of shark-catching countries, a group that is responsible for nearly 80 percent of the reported global catch. According to TRAFFIC’s Global Marine Program Leader Glenn Sant, the fate of the world’s sharks is in the hands of these twenty countries, “most of which have failed to demonstrate what, if anything, they are doing to save these imperiled species.” According to the 2011 CITES convention in Geneva, Thailand was responsible for 2.8 percent of worldwide shark deaths at the time, and although it claimed to have a National Plan of Action for the conservation and management of sharks, it cannot be located through the FOA website, nor found via internet searches.

The attitude of the Thai government towards shark conservation is common throughout Asia. As anyone even marginally involved in the dive community knows, the Asian shark-fin industry is largely responsible for the 90 percent decline in shark populations in the last century.  I’m sure that the few carcasses I saw on display in the Koh Samui market, and which sparked my desire to investigate, were not a part of this trade; the numbers were so small that I believe the sharks were being sold solely for meat. However, although shark meat is mainly used locally, Thailand exports dried fins to Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong. Between 2001 and 2004, over 250,000 pounds of fins were exported from Thailand, the value of which was over 1.6 million baht, or just over $50,000 — a mere $50,000 for 250,000 pounds of shark fins brings into staggering contrast the amount of money each of these animals could be worth alive versus dead. But the increasing demand for shark fin over the last few decades has triggered new shark fisheries, especially in the coastal regions of Southeast Asia, where populations are confined to shallow inshore areas. Finning is a lucrative business, perhaps explaining why governments like Thailand’s are so opposed to measures protecting sharks; in neighboring Malaysia, a set of fins from a blacktip reef shark can fetch RM 310 (US$97) per kilogram.

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It is easy to point the finger at Asian culture, but European fishing vessels also contribute hugely to the finning industry. Similarly, in the case of my Koh Samui sharks, the Thai women in the market sell mainly to restaurants that cater to Western tourists. I was horrified to hear from a divemaster on one of my dives about an American customer who complained about the lack of sharks on a dive, only to admit that he had eaten one at dinner the night before. Many of the Asians involved in the shark-fin industry can claim ignorance of the importance of sharks to the marine ecosystem; Western divers certainly cannot do the same. The death of 73 million sharks worldwide each year is a tragedy, which we must all take responsibility for; to put the shame solely on another culture’s shoulders is to shirk our own duty to act. The mass slaughter of sharks around the world is not only a conservation issue, but also a human health concern, considering that the European Union has issued 34 food safety notifications regarding shark products since February 2012.

According to the IUCN Red List, 55 percent of shark species with sufficient data to determine their conservation status are considered threatened or near-threatened with extinction. Shark finning, intentional fishing for meat and by-catch are all significant contributors to this dire state of affairs, a situation that has severe ramifications for the health of our oceans. Sharks play a vital role in the marine ecosystem, as apex predators that keep the numbers of species further down the food chain in balance. Sharks, like humans, take a long time to mature and have exceptionally slow rates of reproduction, making them particularly vulnerable to overfishing. Without sharks, the fish stocks that keep our dive sites productive and that are the core of livelihoods all over the world are suffering irreparably. For most divers, a close encounter with a shark in its natural environment is the single most exciting and rewarding experience to be had underwater; certainly, when I compared the sad chunk of meat I was offered in the market with the vitality and beauty of the tiger sharks I worked with in Africa, the waste was nothing short of tragic.

Shark conservation groups, especially in Asia, face such an enormous problem as to make it seem insurmountable. But there are rays of hope from which we must take encouragement. Statistics from the single biggest importer of shark fin, Hong Kong, show that imports into the territory have dropped by a third in the last year, while the Hong Kong government announced this September that it would no longer include shark fin or bluefin tuna on the menus of official functions. Slowly, awareness is spreading that shark is no longer a sustainable product, and empathy is on the rise for their plight. Here in Koh Samui and neighboring Koh Tao, there may not be any official protection for sharks, but several non-profit organizations are dedicated to promoting marine conservation. In October, a local fisherman who caught a large Jenkins whiptail ray handed it in to the aquarium to be rehabilitated and released, rather than killing it for its valuable wing meat.

Seeing the dead sharks in the Koh Samui market is just a reminder that there is still a long way to go; that education is, and always will be, the key to conservation success. My divemaster said that in over 2,000 dives in the area, she has seen sharks on only a handful of them. I hope that it is not too late to alter perceptions and raise awareness among local stakeholders of the value of these animals — alive. Above all, I hope that it is not too late to dream that one day, sharks might be found more commonly in the waters of Thailand than in its markets.