In the 21st century, the idea and thought of encouraging a shark industry here in Sarawak would anger the public, especially environmentalists and conservationists.
However 80 years ago, Sarawakians were welcome to catch sharks for commercial purposes.
Looking at how the shark industry was thriving in British Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka), Sarawak was seen to have the same potential.
In British Ceylon, shark meat was consumed locally and fresh while the fins were dried and exported to the Strait Settlements.
In a Sarawak Gazette publication dated Jan 4, 1937, an article that first appeared in the Ceylon Trade Journal two months before about the shark industry there caught the attention of one of their readers who later sent a copy to the Sarawak Museum Curator.
It stated, “The Curator, Sarawak Museum, to whom the article has been submitted, states that all the variety of sharks mentioned (in the journal) are found in Sarawak waters, but that since the larger specimens inhabit depths of from twenty to forty fathoms, they would only be taken off Kidurong and Tanjung Datu.”
“He adds that there is no reason why the exploitation of the smaller sharks should not also be paying proposition, and there is no doubt about the abundance of these off the Sarawak coast; six footers are sometimes taken by natives when pukat fishing along shallow beaches, and large catches of small sharks are often made when line fishing in ten or twelve fathom of water.”
The demands for shark skin
While these days sharks are hunted mainly for their fins to make shark fin soup, in the 1930s Sarawakians were encouraged to catch them for their skin and oils.
Back then, there was a strong demand for shark skins, not in Asia, but in Europe, especially England.
According to the Ceylon Trade journal article, the skins of tiger sharks, blue sharks and sand sharks were suitable for the leather industry.
They preferred sharks measuring at least six feet long for skinning because smaller sharks did not have enough cutting surface for commercial value.
Once caught, the shark had to be skinned as soon as possible because it would spoil in less than 24 hours.
The article also went into great detail in how to remove the skin and even what kind of salt should be used in the preservation process as well as the type of barrels to be used for transportation.
The fins and tail were cut off first before skinning the sharks. Then the carcass needed to be washed thoroughly in seawater making sure there was no blood or slime.
To cure it, the skin was covered in salt for up to six days. “Whilst curing they should, of course, not be exposed to the rays of the sun, or come in contact rain or other fresh water.”
The demand for shark oil
In England shark oil was in demand, pricing from £23 to £24 ( £1,535.28 to £1,602.03 in 2019) per tonne. Compare that to today’s prices of USD2,000 per metric tonne for fish oil ( £1,588.60) and you can see how significant shark oil was as a commodity.
Shark oil was prepared from the liver and it was important that the liver was fresh.
If it was not fresh, the oil made from it would be rancid and have a foul smell.
These were the steps to process shark oil:
“As soon as the livers are cut out of the carcass, they should be washed thoroughly in sea water and the galls cut off. The oil can be economically rendered for industrial purposes in a steam jacketed copper kettle. If steam is not available, a plain iron kettle can be used with a fire underneath, in which case, the kettle should contain about one-third sea water.
“The kettle should not come into direct contact with the fire and a high temperature should not be used to render the oil as it will burn very quickly and become discoloured. The fresh livers after being put into the kettle should be boiled for three or four hours and stirred frequently to render the oil from livers. As soon as the oil is rendered and cooled, and the gutty settled, the oil can be dipped off and strained with several layers of fine cloth into a 50-gallon wooden barrel or iron drum.”
Besides the oil and skin, there was a demand for dried and salted shark meat as well. In England, the price for dried and salted shark meat ranged from £20 to £28 per tonne.
With high demand for these commodities back then and seeing how the shark industry was making money in other countries, it was not a surprise that Sarawakians were encouraged to catch these predators.
As it was stated in the gazette, “We understand that shark-fishing is carried on with considerable success in British North Borneo, and there seems to be no reason why it should not be equally successful in Sarawak. We commend the idea to anyone with enterprise and capital.”