Last February I came across this sign in Quezon, Palawan. It belonged to a buying station. The sign read:
We buy Seahorse, Seadragon, Seaweeds, Sea Cucumbers, Shark Fins.
WHAT ARE MARINE PRODUCTS?
They’re sea animals or parts of them that make their way to your plate (Shark’s fin Soup) or your Chinese First Aid kit (Crushed Seahorse Heads). This buying station was the first step. They bought it from the hunters, the fishermen who harvest sea cucumbers or who catch sharks and just cut off their fins.
A NASTY EXAMPLE
A whale shark, relatively rare and docile, was mutilated for its fins. It later died. This crime occurred in Philippine waters. There are still some people who don’t get it.
A shark uses its fins for stabilizing, steering, lift and propulsion. Cut them off and you’ve left a mortally-injured animal alive in the sea. It’s like cutting off a person’s limbs. No arms and no legs. Just the trunk.
Sharks are more valuable alive than dead. (See last section.)
JUST ANOTHER BUSINESS
Buying and selling shark fins, seahorses, seadragons, and various types of sea cucumbers and slugs is one type of commerce. Apparently it’s not illegal. This buying station was in plain view of a police station across the road.
After inquiring, I was directed to the residence of the trader who operated the buying station. She was having her fingernails and toenails cleaned and polished when I arrived. The works.
At her house, her husband brought out samples of each item. I used my phone, a Blackberry 8100, as a ruler. The phone is 11 centimeters or 4.2 inches long.
Seahorses and Seadragons are caught in shallow waist-deep water. Seahorses and seadragons are both fishes. Carnivorous fish!
According to National Geographic:
Seahorses are truly unique, and not just because of their unusual equine shape. Unlike most other fish, they are monogamous and mate for life. Rarer still, they are among the only animal species on Earth in which the male bears the unborn young.
Found in shallow tropical and temperate waters throughout the world, these upright-swimming relatives of the pipefish can range in size from 0.6 inches (1.5 centimeters) to 14 inches (35 centimeters) long.
Seahorses have no teeth and no stomach. Food passes through their digestive systems so quickly, they must eat almost constantly to stay alive.
Seadragons, on the other hand, are more commonly called pipefish.
Pipefish look like straight-bodied seahorses with tiny mouths. The name is derived from the peculiar form of their snout, which is like a long tube, ending in a narrow and small mouth which opens upwards and is toothless. The body and tail are long, thin, and snake-like. They have a highly modified skeleton formed into armored plating.
Sea cucumbers are ingredients in Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian, and German cooking. The Chinese also believe it is an aphrodisiac.
According to Chow:
Sea cucumbers are an abundant and diverse group of cucumber-shaped, soft-bodied echinoderms related to sea urchins and starfish. Prized for its gelatinous texture and supposed aphrodisiac qualities, the sea cucumber is a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. Rather bland on their own, sea cucumbers absorb and accentuate the flavors of the ingredients in which they are cooked. Sea cucumbers are usually purchased already cleaned, in a complex process that takes several days, and then rehydrated before use.
THE MARKET FOR MARINE PRODUCTS
The trader needs to travel to Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s capital, to sell her stock. The wholesale price for Seahorses fluctuates around the Php12,000 per kilo. (“Php” stands for the Philippine Peso. Php12,000 is about US$280.) Seadragons go for about Php10,000 per kilo.
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These images are gritty stark. You can actually see the dirt on the plastic tablecloth!
MORE VALUABLE ALIVE THAN DEAD!
According to Discovery Channel:
A single reef shark can be worth nearly $2 million in tourism revenue over its lifetime, according to a study released Monday by researchers in Australia.
The analysis from the Pacific island nation of Palau shows that sharks — hunted worldwide for their fins, a Chinese delicacy — are worth many times more to some local economies alive than dead.
“Sharks can literally be a ‘million-dollar’ species and a significant economic driver,” said lead author Mark Meekan, a scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science.
“Our study shows that these animals can contribute far more as a tourism resource than as a catch target,” he said in a statement.
The researchers found that the annual value to the Palau tourism industry of an individual reef shark at one of the country’s major scuba-diving sites is $179,000 (121,000 euros) a year, or about $1.9 million (1.3 million euros) over the animal’s lifetime.
Shark diving accounts for about 80 percent of the tiny country’s GDP and 14 percent of its business tax base. It also generates more than a million dollars annually in salaries.
In 2009, Palau became the first country in the world to declare all of its territorial waters to be a shark sanctuary, followed last year by Honduras and The Maldives.
Hawaii, the territories of Guam and the Northern Marianas, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands have all banned the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins.
“Shark tourism can be a viable economic engine,” said Matt Rand, a shark expert at the Washington-based Pew Environment Group, which commissioned the research. “This study provides a compelling case that can convince more countries to embrace these animals for their benefit to the ocean and their value to a country’s financial well-being.”