Aw is the founding director of OceanNEnvironment, a charity organization registered in Australia to protect coral reefs, promote bio-diversity and reduce the impact of man-made pollution through research and expeditions. Much of the money spent is his own, earned through his work as a photographer, author and publisher.
He heads a "Say No" to shark's fin campaign in Singapore and Malaysia, which also has a large Chinese population, creating educational leaflets and videos, and organizing roadshows and school visits to get his message across. He plans to take his campaign to China.
According to conservation group Sea Shepherd, the booming Chinese economy is proving to be deadly for sharks because it has spurred greater demand for fins. "As a result, the oceans are literally being scoured clean of sharks. Poachers are invading national marine parks like the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and Cocos Island in Costa Rica to catch sharks," its website says.
Sea Shepherd estimates that over 7,257 tonnes of shark fins are processed each year -- and 181,487 tonnes of shark carcasses are discarded at sea. It says 18 species are already listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
"Every year humans slaughter over 100 million sharks yet we depict them as vicious and blood-thirsty killers," the group asserts. "No more than 12 people a year are killed by sharks worldwide."
But in largely ethnic Chinese Singapore, the absence of shark's fin soup at a wedding menu can start guests' tongues wagging about how "cheap" the couple or their parents are. Even environmentally conscious newlyweds find it difficult to avoid serving shark's fin soup. Otherwise, the family might lose face.
A Singaporean civil servant who recently married a naval officer says they had contemplated not serving shark's fin at their wedding in a luxury hotel, but did not have the heart to go ahead.
"You don't want to put your parents in that kind of position," she says, but expresses hope that "after this generation [the practice] might die off."
Like most ethnic Chinese kids in Asia, Aw grew up expecting shark's fin soup to be served on special occasions.
"Mum used to order the dish especially during Chinese New Year, birthdays and weddings," he says. But at his own 1996 wedding, Aw demanded that the dish be taken off the menu, and whenever he is served shark's fin soup at dinners, he seizes the occasion to wage culinary propaganda.
"I will politely decline and give a short spiel on the wastage and cruelty in procurement of shark fins. In fact in Chinese culture, cruelty begets ill fortune, bad luck and a sentence to hell after death!" he says.
Crabs are OK
Aw's travel schedule is daunting. After a holiday in Fiji with his wife and son in January, he went to Phuket, Thailand to view damage caused by last December's earthquake and tsunami. Then came trips to South Australia, Bangkok, the Maldives and Malaysia. For the rest of the year, his work will take him to South Africa, Fiji again, Tahiti, China and the US. Early next year Aw will lead a nature tour of Antarctica.
Aw's advertising and publishing skills will come in handy since it takes a lot of media savvy to change the mindsets of consumers and fight the formidable business interests behind the shark's fin industry.