Saturday, May 17, 2008


I'd been meaning to get down to watching Sharkwater for a bit and finally did last week. While the underwater visuals were everything I'd expected though, I have to say I'm pretty disappointed with the message it tried to put across. In a nutshell the film is trying to call attention to the practice of shark finning (slicing off shark fins and chucking the bodies back into the ocean) driven by the shark fin industry. Considering the amoung of attention the film has already received, I'd say it's done that admirably. Its portrayal of the shark fin industry however is highly questionable.

In the first place, the main source of opinion on the issue was Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society - an organisation whose raison d'etre is the persecution of crimes against marine life. Or at least what they deem to be crimes. These are the same people who created a huge ruckus when the people of a small native American tribe - the Makah - announced that they were, with government approval, to revive their traditional practice of whaling as a means of maintaining and reinforcing their ethnic identity. The plan allowed for them to catch up to 5 grey whales annually over a 5 year period. While the grey whale used to be endangered, it isn't now and wasn't in 1999 when the Makah resumed the hunt. Furthermore, they have since taken just 1 whale. The response from Sea Shepherd however seemed to indicate otherwise. Sea Shepherd vessels harrassed the Makah whaling crew and hurled missiles and racist insults at them. Paul Watson himself shouted at them over the loudspeaker "Just because you were born stupid doesn't mean you have to be stupid!" the uproar caused made the Makah the subject of death threats and all sorts of racist abuse. Bumper stickers read 'Save a Whale, Kill an Indian' and poems containing lines such as 'I'll beat up my wife, leave my kiddies bereft. This is Makah training, and tradition must not be left!' were circulated widely over the internet. All this, for a society legally taking small numbers of an unendangered animal in order to maintain a tradition of their forefathers and a foundation of their ethnic identity. Nor is this the only instance of Sea Shepherd's pursuit of a rather questionable cause. They have also done it with the conduct of traditional pilot whale hunts on the Faroe Islands as well.

I also disagree with some of the things Paul Watson says. Referring to the traditional consumption of shark's fin in Asia, he mentions in Sharkwater that he has no respect for cultures that deprive future generations of something. Yet while sharks, whales and wildlife in all its variety, are certainly worthy of maintenance and safeguarding, are traditions any less important? How much respect would future generations have for us when they realise that we've denied them much of their heritage and tradition - particularly those that form the very basis of a cultural or ethnic identity? All things considered, Paul Watson and his crew are, in my opinion, a rather dubious source from which to be garnering opinion.

The questionable practices and ideology of Sea Shepherd aside, the film also delivers very little insight into the subject at hand. While it maintains throughout that the practice must be stopped, it does little to shed light on who is perpertrating these crimes and how to stop it, making unclear references instead to 'Taiwan' and 'the shark fin mafia'. Consumers of shark's fins are lumped together as Asia, as if the largest continent in the world is a homogenous entity of ravenous shark's fin eaters. Shark's fin is after all a luxury item, and while it may be commonplace among Chinese families in relatively affluent places like Singapore and Hong Kong, just how proliferated is it in other Asian countries without quite as much economic clout? Also, considering the appeal and traditional roots of shark's fin soup, is there any sustainable way of acquiring the main ingredient without decimating the world's shark populations? Could aquaculture possibly provide a solution? Finally, the film also makes no mention of how many sharks are killed as a result of finning for the shark fin industry, and how many are killed as bycatch by the various fishing industries of the world? Instead of addressing these questions, Sharkwater simply goes on and on about not just the plight of sharks, but the plight of the filmmaker himself in the obstruction of his desire to keep on swimming with sharks.

Wow ok I've certainly gone on. Leong you did ask me to blog haha. Personally I feel a need for urgent action if we are to save the world's shark populations from extinction. We might even be saving ourselves from extinction considering the integral part that sharks play in the marine ecosystem, a vital source of food for both ourselves and the other organisms we share this earth with. However, one cannot simply demand that millions people give up what is for them - particularly the Chinese - an ages old tradition with tremendous symbolism. Furthermore we cannot simply point the finger at China and the rest of Asia as the proverbial Judas. I come from a typical middle class family in Singapore and I rarely have shark's fin soup more than three times a year. even then in tiny portions mostly inundated with soup stock, crab meat and egg white. If this is the case in affluent Singapore, then just how available and affordable is the dish in a developing country like China? Particularly at the astronomical prices that Sharkwater claims the fins go for? If we're going to do something to save the sharks we need to stop hurling the blame around and start looking for a compromise. And we need to do it fast.

Anyway for anyone who'd like to check up on the stuff I've written here, refer to Coastal Cultures: An Anthropology of Fishin and Whaling Traditions by Rob van Ginkel, chps 2 & 3.


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