Michael Aw. If you have never heard of the name, you probably will in the coming weeks and months ahead. Michael is a world renowned marine photographer who is recognised internationally for his work.
The list of accolades – some 60 international awards – he has received is very impressive indeed. His biggest achievements:
In 2010, he received the Wyland Icon award for Conservation. The year before that, he was given the Palme D’or for his film, “Philippines – Heart of the Ocean”, which he won at the World Underwater Pictures Festival in France. He was named the Natural History Museum BBC Photographer of the Year (Wildlife Conservation) in 2000 and 2010. In 2006, he was named the Best Winner in the underwater category.
Michael, a Singaporean, is the founder of OceanNEnvironment, a charity organisation registered with Environment Australia, where he is based. He is also founder of Asian Geographic.
In 2008, he was conferred the Peter Benchley Shark Conservation Award by Sharks Research Institute for his passionate and unrelenting campaign against sharks fin soup consumption in the Asia Pacific region. Michael’s campaign to save the apex predator in the ecosystem was started in 2002 – 10 years ago. It has now taken on an added impetus, with the campaign focused on educating the public, corporate companies, schools and eventually to persuade the government to impose a legislative ban on the sale of sharks fin soup in Singapore by the end of 2013.
Michael was in Singapore on Friday to participate in the Asia Dive Expo (Adex) 2012 currently being held at the Expo and Convention Centre, Marina Bay Sands. The event, into its 18th year, brings together diving enthusiasts and marine photographers and videographers from all over the world.
So, why would Singaporeans probably be hearing more about him and his work in the weeks and months ahead? Publichouse.sg spent a few minutes with Michael at the expo to chat with him about why and how he is going to erase sharks fin soup from the menu, a task which is made harder by the cultural traditions the dish holds among the Chinese population here and elsewhere. It is something which is not lost on the renowned photographer and campaigner.
“Singapore is the second biggest consumer of sharks fin in the world,” Michael says. “First is Hong Kong. Hong Kong consumes up to 70 per cent of sharks fin culled every year.”
“I think the younger generation is very much aware of this issue because we’ve been doing this for a long time now,” Michael says about the situation in Singapore. “But the population which is above-40, it’s a Chinese culture issue, isn’t it? It’s a tradition. It’s very hard to tell them what to do, especially [in] Asian culture. I think that they’re resistant because they don’t care, there is no need to care because it’s [just] food, right? It’s a very good traditional cuisine. But I think we can convince them.”
The way to do so is through education and patiently explaining why sharks are important to the entire ecosystem. Sharks, he explains, are guardians of the oceans. “They’re the apex predator. They must remain in the ocean,” Michael says. Extinction of these species, which sit at the top of the food chain, will have serious consequences for all of marine life, he says.
But how would Singaporeans be able to understand or empathise with the plight of these creatures, or the important roles they play in the bigger scheme of things, since Singaporeans hardly come into contact with animals, much less animals which are in their natural environment or habitats? Michael agrees but remains hopeful. He points out that things may change in the coming months with the opening of the Marine Life Park at Resorts World Sentosa later this year. The park “will house over 100,000 fishes in over 55 million litres of water”, making it one of the biggest aquariums in the world.
“When that opens,” Michael says, “I think Singaporeans will have greater affinity with animals.” For most people, the only place they can see them is in a controlled environment, like a zoo or in an aquarium. But “these animals are actually ambassadors”. “You will have a very nice facility in Singapore where people can actually go to to learn more about animals,” he says. Michael is also involved as a consultant to the Marine Life Park’s educational programme.
Still, he is concerned about the state of the shark population worldwide. “We’re at the tipping point,” Michael says. “75 million to 100 million sharks are taken every year. Whatever the number, it is not sustainable because sharks reproduce very slowly. Every one or two years, they produce one calf. Sexual maturity takes up to eight years. You need a certain number of them to [reproduce] and populate. So, we’re really at the tipping point. Lots of places in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia waters, certain species are extinct. The term used by science is ‘regionally extinct’. There are some around but not enough to re-populate the numbers.”
The key, as he repeatedly emphasised, to stop the harvesting of sharks for their fins, is education. He is aware that this is a time-consuming endeavour. After all, it has been already 10 years since the campaign started. But there is progress. He points to several top hotels and supermarket chains such as NTUC Fairprice and Cold Storage which have stopped carrying sharks fin products or serving sharks fin soup.
“We are human, we evolve slowly,” Michael says, when asked if he is disappointed that it has taken so long to convince the public and companies to abandon sharks fin soup. “Animals evolve faster than us. Human beings evolve very slowly. Change has to come from within and it comes very slowly. You don’t want drastic change overnight. There will be consequences. So, we have to make the change but we have to make sure it is a good change.”
“We want this to be a Singaporean campaign,” Michael explains. “Any Singaporean can join this campaign.” More volunteers have since stepped up to help, including former Ms Singapore Universe (2007), Ms Jessica Tan, who was photographed in the Bahamas surrounded by sharks, as part of an ad campaign for the cause.
The next one year will see the volunteers going into the schools, engaging corporate companies and more hotels and restaurants. The team will collate feedback, and support, and will present this to the government by the end of 2013 to call for a complete ban on the sale of sharks fin soup in Singapore. When this is achieved, the next step would be a ban on all shark products.
But Michael insists that this can only be achieved if the people themselves want it. For example, he says some hotels and restaurants stopped serving sharks fin soup because wedding couples enquired about it, and would avoid holding their wedding dinner there if these establishments served the dish.
“It’s people coming to them, wedding couples saying, ‘We don’t want sharks fin soup at our wedding’. And there were people who lobbied them, saying, ‘You should not serve sharks fin soup.’ So, it’s the people that are requesting for it. Some of us will not eat at Chinese restaurants if they served sharks fin soup.”
“If wedding couples around Singapore will not want sharks fin soup in their menu, that is such a powerful [reason] for [the restaurants] to take sharks fin off the menu, isn’t it?” Michael says. “There are so many more better alternatives. Your Buddha Jumps Over The Wall tastes much better than your sharks fin soup any day! That should be your dish!”
“They say that [sharks fin soup] has deep roots in Chinese culture. I want to have three, four wives, concubines. That was Chinese culture. Can I have that today? So, we can change. There’s more reason to change than not to change. You’re saving an apex predator in the ocean. You’re saving the ocean.”
Come end-2013, sharks fin soup could very well be an extinct dish. It is a prospect which more and more Singaporeans would gladly welcome.
Visit Michael Aw’s website here.
Press release by the campaign:
No Shark Fins Singapore Campaign Officially Launched at Asia Dive Expo 2012
Passionate individuals, with the support of non-profit organisations in a push for Singapore to be shark fin-free by 2013.
Singapore, April 13, 2012 – A group of individuals concerned with the future of shark populations officially launched the No Shark Fins Singapore campaign at the Asia Dive Expo (ADEX) 2012 today. First initiated as an online petition in January, the cause attracted 80,000 supporters within its first two weeks of being posted, and the group decided to push for greater impact by formally launching a campaign with an action plan.
Through this campaign, the group hopes to make Singapore shark fin-free by 2013 and is looking to convince all Chinese restaurants, and companies to remove shark fins from their menus and corporate events respectively, and conduct active outreach programmers to primary and secondary schools. Internationally-recognised photographer and diver Michael Aw initiated this campaign.
Non-profit organisations that have so far shown their support for this ground-up shark conservation campaign include WWF Singapore, Project FIN, Fauna and Flora International, IUCN, Shark Research Institute, and Humane Society International. The group is speaking with other non-profit organisations to widen support for shark conservation.
Explaining the need to take action, Michael Aw said, “For the good of our oceans and future generations, change must come from within. Being a prominent economy in the heart of Asia, Singapore should take the lead as a socially responsible country to be the first in Asia to make this happen.”
“To protect sharks, we must first appreciate the animal. Sharks have been around for over 400 million years – they are the guardians of our ocean. They are old friends. We certainly need a friendlier image for sharks,” he added.
*Photo credit: Olivia Choong.