It was a warm January morning in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. The sun had barely risen as we headed down to the fishing port to see what was being landed with the daily catch. Our intention for coming to Sri Lanka was to film the Blue Whale, however Paul has been working on a Shark Fin project for the past three years, the culmination of which will be a photographic book highlighting the plight of the shark due to the worldwide mass slaughter for the fins, used in the Asian delicacy of Shark Fin Soup. We enter the port area and the hustle and bustle of the early morning market was in full swing. The fishing boats were pulling alongside in there numbers and offloading their catch. As we walk through the piles of fish of all species we find a small amount of sharks, landed still whole with fins intact. These sharks are all juveniles, one barely a pup measuring less than two feet. We watch as the bargaining begins for the fins, and when the deal was closed we witness the fins being sliced off with a rusty old knife. The fishermen don’t seem to mind us watching and documenting. With knots in my stomach I film this barbarous act trying hard to contain my emotions. Our translator explains that the fins are then taken to a warehouse in nearby Matara, where a Chinese businessman visits every week from Colombo and buys them. We ask if we can visit the warehouse, and the local buyer agrees.

We move along the quayside a bit further to discover a pile of 'Devil Fish' (a.k.a mobula rays) , then another pile. Never before have I seen so many large rays. Usually there may be the odd one as a result of accidental by-catch, but this didn’t seem right. We ask our translator why there are so many, he is confused at first, but speaks with some of the local fishermen. “They are sold for Chinese medicine,” he tells us. This is new to us. We ask him what for, and he tells us for a medicinal soup. We watch as after all the other fish are sold, the final event seemed to be the devil fish. The mobulas are sold in two parts, the head and the rest of the fish. The heads were fetching 500 rupees and that included all ten gills. Once sold, the mobulas head is hacked up to get to the gills. The same guy who was finning the sharks, now brings forth his rusty knife and sets to work on the devil's heads separating the ‘Gill Rakers’ from the fleshy part that holds them in place. These small concertina looking filter pieces are what the Chinese are interested in. The rest of the fish is either sold very cheap to the locals for use in a fish curry or is left to waste. Of the twenty-three manta’s we saw that morning, we witnessed only four bodies sold. The translator told us that the rest would be discarded. Whether this is true or not, it seems to be a terrible waste.

After watching many more ray’s being butchered in this mindless slaughter of such a graceful, harmless creature, we had seen enough for any man before breakfast. (Something that we both abstained from that day). We spent the morning pondering what we had witnessed and tried to make some sense of it all. This was something neither of us had heard about before. Paul had seen a few manta’s whilst at a market in Lombok, Indonesia but never so many and never was the connection made as to what for.

That afternoon we decide to go to Matara to visit the buyer and see if we can see the warehouse. We head out in a three wheel motor-trike with our translator at hand. Upon arrival we are surprised at how welcoming the local buyer is. Outside on the porch area are small piles of shark fins, each divided into individual piles dependant on species. Long-fined Mako, Hammerhead, Oceanic White-tip. You name them, they were pretty much all represented by a small, insignificant pile.

He takes us inside and we start becoming more alert to our surroundings, clear exit routes, other people, potential weapons and the like. All seemed very friendly on the surface but these situations have a habit of turning bad very quickly and the last place I want to end up is chopped up in a sweat hole in the arse end of Matara, or worse if there is one. Rusty knives and choppers lie around inside, in the corner is a basket with shark jaws next to an old broom. Charts showing different shark species line the walls as we are led into a small, dimly lit back room with a large chest freezer. The buyer opens the freezer to reveal it is full to the brim with freshly cut shark fins of all shapes, sizes and species. On the floor are white sacks similar to those we see stacked in the shops of Sheung Wan in Hong Kong, brimming with dried fins. On a rack behind us we see large clear plastic bags crammed full of dried Gill Rakers. At that time there were four bags, each bag containing approx a hundred or so devil fish they tell us. Just in this small room were the remains of over 400 rays and thousands of sharks. My heart sinks as I begin thinking what all these creatures would look like if they were all still swimming in the ocean together. It would be a magnificent sight, and would out do any scene I’ve ever seen on a Nat Geo documentary. At this point the buyer’s brother arrives and we try to gauge how he handles finding two foreigners in his warehouse/home with video and still cameras. Rather than being hostile, he asks if we’ve seen the roof? Wow, could they be anymore hospitable, they’d be offering us tea next!.

The brother leads us out of the house and we climb onto a small wall and up to the flat roof. Drying on the terracotta roof tiles of their humble abode are more fins and a load of freshly butchered gill rakers. The brother speaks better English so we start quizzing him on prices etc. He tells us that he gets 1,500 Rupees for a kilo of small shark fin, but he gets between 4-5,000 Rupees for a kilo of gill rakers. Three to four descent size rays provide about a kilo of gill rakers after drying. The gills were more rewarding than the shark fins? The plot thickens. We get as much footage as we can and thank them before leaving, choosing not to push our luck and over stay our welcome. Upon arrival in Hong Kong we begin the hunt for the gill rakers and start researching what they are used for. We found them in a high profile Chinese Medicine shop on Queens Road Central in a glass jar. Paul arranges for a local Chinese friend who he has worked with on the shark book to accompany us in to get some information. With the video in covert mode (record light disabled and camera casually slung on shoulder) we enter the shop. The assistant tells us that the rakes are used in a congee to help people getting over an illness such as small kids with chicken pox. The mindset is that the filters from the ray’s help to filter out the disease and remove it from the body, speeding up recovery. Whether this is true or not I am not medically qualified to comment on. The assistant told us that it was a very old recipe and is rarely used anymore! The rakers are sold at about HK$60/lb. Not expensive at all. This doesn’t make any economical sense as the Chinese businessman in Colombo buys the rakes for far more than that from the local buyers. Add shipping costs to Hong Kong and then the Hong Kong shops markup and it really doesn’t make any financial sense at all.

The Mobula & Manta Rays reaches sexual maturity at about five years of age. Mobula/Manta rays give birth to 1 or 2 pups each year, and females often take a year off to recover her resources before breeding again. This low reproductive rate means that ray populations take a long time to recover if their numbers are reduced. It is not known if manta rays are endangered, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers them Near Threatened, because of their low reproductive rate.

In Mirissa we counted on average twenty mobulas a day. That’s 7,300 rays killed by just that small village a year, think of how many fishing villages there are along just the coast of Sri Lanka, not even the rest of Asia. Unless International Laws to Protect them are put in place immediately, the Manta & Mobula Rays, one of natures most graceful creatures will be wiped out in only a matters of a few years. So why are so many being killed daily if it’s not even popular? The plot thickens further. I believe we have only partially uncovered the story here, maybe in Taiwan or the Mainland they are being used for something else. All I know is that while we investigate, every day more and more are being slaughtered.

I think of what the oceans will be like for my son when he grows up, I want to be able to show him all the wonderful sights I am seeing but fear that there will be nothing left in the oceans due to our ignorance and greed.

Gary Stokes,
Underwater Photographer & Videographer for Oceanic Love.
www.OceanicLove.com

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