Early this month, the United Nations celebrated World Wildlife Day with a focus on oceans and marine wildlife.
The focus was appropriate given the large number of marine species which are regarded by scientists as either endangered or vulnerable around the world.
The Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed more than 700 marine species or subspecies as either endangered, or vulnerable. Vulnerable means being close to being endangered.
Many of the endangered marine animals can be found in East Asia and the Pacific.
Among them are well-known animals such as whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and tuna fish.
In one extreme case, tuna fish are being driven to the point of extinction in the South Pacific by illegal Chinese fishing.
Humans—and not just from China—have destroyed much marine life through overfishing, industrial development, and chemical pollution, some of it caused by pesticides.
Add to this the man-made warming of ocean waters caused by greenhouse gases as well as a proliferation of plastic waste littering coastal waters in Asia.
Plastic waste floating in ocean waters is turning out to be the most difficult environmental challenge facing many Southeast Asian nations.
A new study on ocean ‘heat waves’
Meanwhile, under the water, trends look ominous.
A new report published on March 4 by the journal Nature Climate Change showed that ocean “heat waves” are occurring more frequently than they did in the last century.
As the Reuters news agency explained, most previous studies on the impact of climate change on the oceans have focused on a gradual rise in the waters’ temperatures.
Those temperatures hit a record high in 2018, causing some fish to swim toward the cooler water of the North and South Poles.
The new study prepared by a team of scientists from seven nations is the first to study marine heat waves, which are defined as lasting for at least five days at temperatures far above average.
The heat waves pose threats to fish, coral reefs, and other forms of marine life and could disrupt the livelihoods and food supplies for millions of people.
Despite the negative image that many people have of sharks, they provide benefits to their ecosystem. But they, too, are threatened not only by heat waves and pollution but also by the practice known as finning.
As described by the environmentalist Mark Carwardine, “finning is the gruesome practice of cutting off a live shark’s fins and throwing the animal back into the sea, where it dies a slow and painful death.”
For more than a thousand years, shark fins have been used by Chinese communities around the world as a key ingredient in shark-fin soup.
A number of countries, including China, have banned finning. And as far back as 1991, 28 airlines agreed not to transport shark fins.
China has banned the use of shark-fin soup at banquets, although the practice apparently continues to take place at some private events.
Danny Mok of The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on Feb. 12 that shark fins were among luxury items worth millions of dollars that Hong Kong customs police seized last month.
During a 27-day effort to tackle cross-border smuggling into China before and during the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration, Hong Kong customs officials arrested more than 1,200 people engaged in the smuggling operations.
The smugglers were dealing in endangered wildlife species, including pangolin scales, as well as ivory tusks and ivory products, orchids, and shark fins, which altogether were valued at an estimated $9.4 million.
This seemed to indicate that some among China’s growing middle class still value shark fin soup as a delicacy and status symbol.
But Simon Denyer of The Washington Post reported on Feb. 15 that based on government figures and private surveys, consumption of shark fin soup in China had fallen by about 80 percent since 2011.
At the same time, however, the consumption of shark fin soup had risen in some other countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, according to Denyer.
In a report published in 2018, WildAid, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization focused on reducing the demand for illegal wildlife, listed the main markets outside China for shark fins as Taiwan, Indonesia, Hong Kong.
Oceana, a non-profit organization established in 2001by leading foundations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, says that sharks play a key role in protecting coral reefs by removing predatory fish such as groupers that feed on herbivores.
Coral reefs provide homes and protection to thousands of fish species.
The good news
Despite the growing threat to marine life caused by climate change, the proliferation of plastic waste and pesticides, overfishing, and industrial development, there is some good news.
Public awareness of the threat to marine wildlife has grown in a number of Asian countries, thanks to the work of governments as well as that of local and international nonprofit organizations.
Thailand awakened to the threat to marine wildlife caused by plastic in early June last year when a pilot whale washed ashore in canal in southern Thailand.
A Thai rescue team attempted to remove all of the plastic but failed, and the whale died. Veterinarians discovered that the whale had swallowed some 80 pieces of plastic waste. It had mistaken the bits of plastic for food.
Thailand, which had been slow to deal with plastic waste, now plans to ban the use of very thin single-use plastic bags in 2022. This is to be followed by a ban on single-use plastic glasses and straws three years later.
But when it comes to sharks, Thailand as well as Indonesia and Malaysia continue to be part of a group of countries that have not yet banned shark finning, according to a report dated 2017 from the nonprofit organization WildAid.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.