Mission tanks as rescuers try to save sharks from bar
Experts are urging those who love marine life to use official channels after plans to move sea creatures to a new home fell through.
Bali-based marine rescue worker Paul Friese found it hard to take the day off work when he came to Bangkok on a visa run last month.
Originally from Hawaii, and the founder of the Bali Sharks Rescue Centre, Mr Friese had phoned ahead to his friends prior to his visit. He said that if they had seen or heard of any shark abuse at a restaurant or market, they should tell him.
He got a tip from one friend about a bar in Sukhumvit Soi 12 that had five juvenile blacktip sharks swimming in a large tank for the entertainment of customers. The species is common in Thai waters and not considered endangered.
Mr Friese went to the bar and was stunned by what he saw. Five baby sharks were swimming in circles inside the tank, which was decorated with red lights as part of the bar's exotic theme. The sharks were juveniles one to 1.5 metres long and, for now, the aquarium was large enough to accommodate them.
He contacted the local partner of Bali Shark Rescue, Steven Reinhold, to try and find a more suitable location in Thailand for the sharks to survive and grow normally.
But the rescue of the sharks has been far from straightforward despite the best intentions of Bali Sharks Rescue trying to work with the bar owner and the Institute of Marine Science which was to become the new home for the animals.
The situation has been further complicated by the closure of the bar after the foreign leaseholder's six-month contract expired. The Thai owner has locked the bar and said he will deal with the sharks himself. Despite several visits to the venue and repeated interview requests to the Thai owner, it was not known if the sharks were still in the bar when Spectrum went to press. It has also prompted experts to warn those who suspect cases of animal abuse to contact authorities rather than taking matters into their own hands.
FINDING A NEW HOME
American-born Mr Reinhold, 61, has always loved the sea and runs a surf shop in Jomtien, where he lives with his Thai wife.
As soon as he heard about the baby sharks found at the bar, he travelled to Bangkok to check out the situation. Just like Mr Friese, he was shocked by what he saw and felt obliged to get the sharks out of the bar.
"I used to be one of those people who used to do nothing but complain about things," he said. "Human beings have been raping the ocean for so long and I feel like I want to do something to help the ocean that I love."
Mr Reinhold co-founded Bali Sharks Rescue in 2013 with Mr Friese. The centre has rescued and released more than 180 sharks back into the ocean, according to its Facebook page. Mr Reinhold says he travels between Jomtien and Bali to take part in shark rescue projects.
He said the sharks in the bar tank were in poor condition as they were starting to outgrow their environment. He estimated they were three to four years old, with one female and four males in the tank.
Mr Reinhold eventually located the foreign owner of the bar who said the sharks were not his, arguing that they had come with the bar when he leased it from the Thai owner six months earlier.
"The owner told me that he intended to get rid of them anyway but he didn't know how until I contacted him," Mr Reinhold said. "So I will rescue all the baby sharks and put them in a new home where the environment is more suitable for them."
But the shark rescue never eventuated. Mr Reinhold contacted the Institute of Marine Science, located at the Burapha University campus in Bang Saen, who agreed to take the sharks and later release them into the ocean. A tank filled with seawater as well as an oxygen tank were to be provided to transport the sharks 100km from Bangkok to Bang Saen.
However, Mr Reinhold said the Thai bar owner informed him he wanted the sharks removed immediately and said he would take care of it himself. The rescue operation had been planned for today.
The director of the institute, Saowapa Sawatpeera, said she was not surprised the rescue mission had failed as negotiations weren't conducted properly. She added there was no breach of any Thai laws as the blacktip shark is common and widely eaten. Dr Saowapa also said she believed the sharks would be able to survive if they were simply released into the ocean.
"I'm not surprised the mission has failed because it has not been conducted properly in the first place," she told Spectrum. "They are violating the rights of the actual owners of the sharks. If a rescue was to be conducted, it has to be at the request of the bar owner, and not a third party such as the rescue centre."
Dr Saowapa advised people interested in protecting marine life to first contact marine and wildlife authorities to gain some knowledge of the species involved and the procedures needed to launch such rescue missions.
She also cautioned that environmental "do-gooders" should also take into account the future survival of a rescued animal and ensure it is released into the right environment.
"In some cases returning marine life to the open ocean will lead to an animal's death if the rescuers do not have proper knowledge," she warned, adding if the public had any doubts they should contact the institute.
Dr Saowapa said they routinely dealt with similar cases, especially fishermen who asked for help.
"From time to time, we will get contacted by local fishermen when they catch marine animals they don't intend to, such as exotic shellfish or fish they can't sell or eat. They give the animals to us and we take care of them in our research centre," Dr Saowapa said.
Despite the warnings, Mr Reinhold said he believed he was doing the right thing in attempting to rescue the sharks.
"I'm concerned that the owner will not know where to release them, and if they are released just anywhere they will be caught again and back in the same situation," he said.
"I fully understand that these sharks are not an endangered species, but if it keeps happening like this there may not be anything left."
'SEEN IT ALL BEFORE'
The Institute of Marine Science was founded in 1969 as a museum and saltwater animal breeding centre by teachers and students from Srinakharinwirot University's Bang Saen campus.
It was expanded after receiving 230 million baht from the Japanese government to buy more land and build a more comprehensive facility. They officially opened as the Institute of Marine Science in 1984 after three years of construction.
Today, the institute has opened its doors to the public as an aquarium where people can learn about marine animals through both a permanent display and a temporary exhibition that changes every month. The institute attracts a lot of local students, families with young children and some foreigners since it is located in the tourist area of Bang Saen beach.
The institute is the first and only place able to breed some rare marine animals, such as five species of clown fish and different species of jellyfish. The institute also sells fish commercially to other aquariums and research centres.
After being with the institute for more than 30 years, Dr Saowapa has seen it all. She is part of the marine biology research team, and she continues to focus on marine life off the eastern coast of Thailand even in the role of director, and is often invited to speak at conferences.
However, she sometimes receives strange requests from businessmen or rich people who own aquariums at their homes or offices with exotic fish.
Once they realise they can't handle the fish in their tanks any more, they contact the institute for help.
"I was recently contacted by one rich Chinese man who kept all exotic and rare types of fish such as tigerfish, yellowtail fish and angelfish in the tank at his private residence. The fish are getting bigger and the owner doesn't know how to handle them," Dr Saowapa explained.
"We went to his house with a group of scientists who are experts in these types of fish to help transport them. People think it is only the matter of taking the fish out of the tank and transporting them, but it actually involves a much more complicated process than that. Fish can be quite stressed when they are moved from one water to another. So we need someone who knows what they are doing to handle this kind of situation."
Besides exotic fish, the institute also has to deal with sea turtles, shellfish or dolphins that are washed ashore. Another part of the mission is to help fishermen when creatures they can't identify get caught in their nets. They usually contact the institute to handle the animal.
There was a recent case when a dead whale was washed ashore on Bang Saen beach, not too far from the university. Dr Saowapa and her team conducted the autopsy before sending the results back to the Department of Fisheries.
The institute also acts as a hub of knowledge about marine life for local fishermen and others in the industry. They pass on knowledge and techniques, such as water quality control for shrimp farming or feeding advice for different types of fish.
Though marine life rescue is part of the mission for the Institute of Marine Science, Dr Saowapa told Spectrum that this accounts for less than 5% of all of the animals at the institute. Most are from their breeding programme or purchased from elsewhere.
Just when you thought it was safe: Bali Shark Rescue's local partner Steven Reinhold says he was shocked to see five sharks swimming in tanks in a Sukhumvit bar. photos: www.youtube.com/Bali Sharks
Expert advice: Institute of Marine Science director Saowapa Sawatpeera specialises in sea creatures off Thailand's eastern coast, and says no laws were broken in the sharks being in the bar.
concerned citizen: Steven Reinhold says while he realises the sharks are not an endangered species, he fears they will be if such practices continue. photo: www.youtube.com/Bali Sharks
Marine lives matter: The institute in Bang Saen has long been a centre for research.
deep blue sea: The Institute of Marine Science is open as a museum and aquarium, with both a permanent display and monthly exhibitions.
Tanks for nothing: The Institute of Marine Science in Bang Saen would have housed the five sharks in this tank had the rescue gone ahead. photos: CHAIYOT YONGCHAROENCHAI