Shark fishing not evil, just not sustainable: National Geographic's Thomas Peschak

Marine conservationist and photographer Thomas Peschak with reef sharks.
Marine conservationist and photographer Thomas Peschak with reef sharks.PHOTO: THOMAS PESCHAK
A great white shark swims near a canoe in this photo taken by marine conservationist and photographer Thomas Peschak.
A great white shark swims near a canoe in this photo taken by marine conservationist and photographer Thomas Peschak.PHOTO: THOMAS PESCHAK

SINGAPORE - In popular culture, sharks are often portrayed as ruthless beasts eager to feast on human flesh.

But this narrative was turned on its head on Sunday afternoon, when marine conservationist and National Geographic photographer Thomas Peschak talked about the plight faced by these creatures . Mr Peschak was speaking at the Esplanade during the National Geographic Live! talk.

Mr Peschak, who has travelled all over the world for his work, related his story about being in the Middle East some years ago to photograph sharks.

Other than some juvenile whale sharks, he couldn't find any adult sharks to photograph. While looking for food, he eventually found out where all the sharks were - at a port in the Middle East bound for Dubai, where they were being exported to cities like Hong Kong.

Mr Peschak showed the audience of more than 1,300 yesterday, a photograph of hundreds of silky sharks laid out at the port.

"I was looking for sharks to photograph, and found their fins in Hong Kong, where there is an entire street dedicated to selling sharks' fins," he said.

It is difficult to fish sharks sustainably, Mr Peschak told The Straits Times, as they grow slowly, becoming reproductive at a late age, and give birth to very few young.

"I don't want fishermen to stop shark fishing because it's evil, it's just that it's not sustainable," said Mr Peschak, who is also director of conservation for the Save our Seas Foundation, a marine conservation group.

The way forward is to reduce demand for shark products and to work with fishermen to help them find alternative livelihoods.

It was not all doom and gloom during the 11/2 hour talk on Sunday.

Mr Peschak also shared photographs of pristine underwater environments that he took while on assignment, including that of salmon swimming in the streams of a Canadian forest and sardines migrating off the South African east coast.

In answering a question from a member of the audience on whether he prefers taking photographs of dead or live animals, he said he prefers shooting photographs of live creatures.

However, taking photographs of dead animals is a must.

"Happy photographs give people hope and inspiration, but could also make them complacent. Shooting photographs of the other side gives people a better sense of reality. It helps then realise that there are amazing places around, and that we as individuals need to modify our behaviour to ensure they stay amazing," he said.

Ms Grace Lin, 26, an executive in the transport industry, said she enjoyed the talk: "It was quite well-balanced as it depicted both the positive and negative aspects on the state of our oceans. For example, I didn't realise the extent to which shark fin consumption in Asia was fuelling the shark fin trade around the world - that even sharks from the Middle East were being fished to feed the demand."