STW Sundays #2: Kirk Lee, on Shark Conservation

Save-The-World Sundays is a series of interviews conducted with remarkable individuals who have started environmental initiatives and movements. This Sunday, we feature Kirk Lee and his work on shark conservation.

1. What is your Save-The-World project?

My save-the-world project is about “Sharks”.

One-third of global pelagic shark species are under threat of extinction. There are a few problems that we can see:

  1. There is a misconception that sharks are dangerous to humans. This misconception is in part due to the novel ‘Jaws’, which was later adapted into a successful film. Fun trivia: Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, realized the damage that his book had done – he and his wife later dedicated their lives to shark conservation.
  2. There is consumer demand of shark fins. It is the “NO, thank you” decision that will change the whole shark fin industry, but it is difficult to get there.
  3. Sharks are not perceived to be like tigers, rhinos and other wild animals that need our protection. Frequent questions, objections and excuses that I personally receive are, “Shark eat us right?” “Their fins will grow back (just like OKU sharks), right?” “Aren’t they just another fish we eat?”

Our mission is to create awareness and educate the public about the issue, and to show the other side of the coin on sharks. Sharks have been around for over 400 millions years, long before the great dinosaurs. God created this amazing animal for a reason. Being a top predator in the ocean food chain, they play a very important role by helping to maintain a balanced ocean ecosystem. The ocean is the most important ecosystem on this Blue Planet. Just like dolphins and turtles, once you learn to love sharks, you will respect and protect them.

2. What inspired you to start the project?

I’m a swimming instructor by profession and an average dude just like you. Being a Chinese and loving good food, I’ve always loved SFS (Shark Fin Soup). The only time I got to taste them was during wedding banquets, because they’re expensive, and I always tried to get a second helping if I could. It never crossed my mind on how shark fins were obtained, harvested and at what rate was the killing. I continued with my craze without any guilt even though I was then a diver.

Back in 23 March 2010, I was happily youtubing and came across this video that was shot on 15 February, 2010: a group of divers from Hong Kong found a juvenile whale shark, belly up, without fins, in the sea. The whale shark is my favourite fish, and it is the biggest fish in the world, a gentle giant roaming our oceans. This is the video:

[jwplayer mediaid=”13337″]

The pectoral fins act like a steering wheel, and the dorsal fins balance the fish. The fish was alive, bleeding, suffering and dying. The group decided to bring the shark onto the shore to shorten its pain and suffering. I was deeply upset by the movie. I could not sleep, and was up the whole night thinking about it.

3 days later, SOSFABOS (Save Our Sharks From A Bowl Of Soup) was founded on Facebook.

3. How did you start the project?

There were lots of ups and downs. The Facebook page went viral, and we got more than 10k members in less than 6 months, until our page got hacked. We went silent for a year. A lot of time and effort went down the drain. We were lost for a while but looking back, it is a blessing and a good trial, as we moved forward to groundwork. Now we are also volunteers for Shark Savers Malaysia. Shark Savers is an international shark conservation NGO based in United States.

4. How did you push for shark conservation?

Here are some things that we did:

The Public Service Announcement (PSA)
Like I said, we started a Facebook page, but after the page got hacked, the real project kicked in. I saw a PSA supporting The Cove (a documentary about dolphins). Celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston strengthened the PSA. I was contemplating on grabbing my compact camera to film my friends and myself supporting shark conservation. As I started sharing this mini project that I had in mind, ideas and suggestions kicked in, and it got bigger. A friend of a friend could write a script, and another friend could shoot a video professionally. Other friends personally knew celebrities who could be in the video, and soon, the pieces of the puzzle started to take shape.

Finally, we completed our Shark PSA with the support of 13 celebrities such as Patrick Teoh, Fauziah Latiff, Amber Chia and many more. It was a success in many ways. It managed to go on air with NTV7, daily, for 3 months, free of charge. The PSA was aired on the large LCD TV cube in front of LOT 10; it was also played in many wedding dinners. Here is the PSA:

[jwplayer mediaid=”13339″]

We later sent a Gratitude & Support Letter to our Minister of Culture, Environment and Tourism, YB Datuk Masidi Manjun. The letter was signed and supported by Tun Daim Zainuddin, YBHG Dato’Hj. Mohamad Roslan bin Sakiman (Petaling Jaya Mayor) and international celebrity Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh. The letter attached the support of Governor Benigno R Fitial of CMNI (Commonwealth Of The Northern Mariana Islands), over 50 International NGOs, and local celebrities.

Children’s Programmes
We have a string of kids’ programmes where we educate children on saving our amazing sharks.

We were first approached by Voila, a children publishing company, to join their Nemo and Friends event at 1 Utama in December 2011. We took the chance and created a 15-minute puppet show. The puppet show stars Mr Bruce The Friendly Shark, who appears on stage shouting in pain because a fishhook is stuck to his mouth. He explains how afraid he is because fishermen tried to catch him for shark fin soup, and that he would miss his family if he was caught and he would die without his fins. The message also emphasized on how sharks are in danger of extinction and we should save them by not consuming shark fin soup.

From then, we have had many opportunities to exhibit in shopping malls, schools and various events. Our latest was the World Ocean Day event from 1-9 June 2013, a 9-day school holiday event at Paradigm Mall, Kelana Jaya. We decided that our message would no longer focus on ‘no shark fins’, instead our purpose would be to help kids learn to love sharks, rather than fear them. By cultivating an interest and curiosity for sharks, we hope they will see sharks as they see pandas and tigers: beautiful, special and worthy of our protection. Our slogan therefore was “Love Sharks, It All Begins With You”.

5. At what stage of your project are you right now?

Well, there is no ending to our project. Even if, one day, Malaysia takes a bold step to protect sharks (on catching, sale, processing and consuming, just like what Brunei did on World Ocean Day), we will continue to fight for the cause. This is not Malaysia’s or Brunei’s problem. It is a global issue! Most pelagic sharks migrate thousands of kilometers to mate and feed. They are unlike cases such as pandas or tigers, where researchers are sent into the jungle to study habitats and to map a protection zone for these animals.

6. What difficulties did you face while working on the project?

Personally, I must say we (my wife and myself) were very afraid when we were assigned to a documentary project with The Star Online, to go to Mabul Island to film shark harvesting and finning. That was back in March 2011. We had informed most resort operators about our 3 days’ stay at Mabul, and asked them to inform us if there was any shark harvesting. We heard some stories on the first day, but no sighting.

We received a call on the second day about some local fisherman who were loading sharks onto their jetty. We rushed to the scene, pretending we were interested to buy shark fins. Upon taking out our cameras, one of the local fishermen asked us not to share these photos out to the public. We were told that tourists were no longer allowed on that jetty, just 10 minutes after we left. We have also heard personal stories about how shark conservationists are threatened when they try to uncover the truth, that’s why we were scared.

Here’s the video with The Star Online:

[jwplayer mediaid=”13350″]

We have come across people who agree with the cause but are still not making a stand. For example, they will not order but will still consume if served. Sadly, they could not make a decision by just saying “NO to SFS”, and this brings us back to the supply and demand problem. But if a large number of people would reject SFS served at the banquet table, it will send a strong message to other guests and also to the organizers.

7. What is rewarding about your project?

It’s very rewarding to see changes happening around me. Sometimes my students’ parents will come and tell me that their son/daughter now refuses SFS and they would have to stop too. I like it when friends and strangers write thank you notes to me, and support us morally. It is fulfilling to see that a dude like me can actually make a difference. Also, meeting lots of celebrities was also rewarding 🙂

8. What are the lessons that you have learnt from your project?

I am still learning my friend. There are more than 500 species of sharks around the world. Marine biologists are still finding new shark species annually. There are so many interesting facts about sharks! There are sharks that are the biggest fish in the world. Some glow in the dark. Some have long snouts with teeth on both sides. Some have long tails, strange looking heads, thorns…. Some lay eggs and others have live pups. Sometimes cannibalism occurs among the fetuses before they are born. There are lots more! I am not a shark expert but I can consider myself a shark activist.

Since 23 March 2010 (after watching that clip), my life changed totally. I started with shark conservation, and continued with a wide spectrum of other activities. I started to donate blood, I am an organ donor, I went for tree planting, I feed the homeless. I am more environmentally aware and refuse plastic bags whenever I can. Since 9 July 2011, I have been a vegetarian. I could never imagine myself here today, since I was a 95% meat eating person who hated greens and tofu!

9. Would you be willing to talk to (and share resources possibly with) people who are interested to start a project similar to yours?

YES, YES, YES. Everyone can contribute, everyone can make a difference. We do puppet shows, and give talks to schools and corporations. If your school or your company’s CSR would like to have us we would be happy to come. We would love to have a joint campaign with other NGOs (even if it is not shark-related) and individuals. If you would like to take part or volunteer, or even come up with a campaign for sharks, you can mail us at malaysia@sharksavers.org or kirksharkie@gmail.com

10. Any advice that you would like to give to someone else who wants to make a difference?

Not advice, but some sharing. If you asked me 3 years ago, I would never have projected what we have accomplished. It really takes one small step at a time. I had not started this cause from passion and love but merely out of guilt, ignorance and shame. It does not matter how big/small your personal contribution is, it is how you personally feel about any cause, and if you would offer your personal time to volunteer or support it. My secret is: “Keep thinking on how I can make it better”. It will slowly come after a few hard bumps, haha.

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