ABU DHABI // Restrictions have been placed on shark hunting off the coast of the UAE to halt a rapid decline in numbers. The Ministry of Environment and Water has limited the hunting of all species to those with a motorboat and licence, according to the state news agency, WAM. Only one boat per licence will be permitted to hunt at any given time and it must be driven by its owner or his next of kin. The new law also restricts the number of traps a licence-holder can use to 100. Shark stocks around the world have been threatened by over fishing. However, a bad "public image" has produced antipathy to their protection.
The ministry said it was banning the hunting of sharks solely for their fins, which are used as the main ingredient in shark-fin soup in many Asian cuisines. It has also asked fishermen to bring shark remains to the port for disposal, rather than to throw them back into the sea. Drew Gardner, an associate professor of biology in the department of natural science and public health at Zayed University, said most of the sharks seen off the coast of the UAE are not a threat to humans.
"Sharks worldwide are in really big trouble," he said. "Mainly because they are dried for their shark fins and sold for a lot of money in China and Taiwan for soup." Fin fishing used to be more common in Oman before regulations were introduced to protect the species, he said. "In Oman it used to be incredible. People would cut off the fins and leave the rest of the sharks to rot," Mr Gardner said. "I used to live there a few years ago and you would walk along some of the beaches and they would be covered in rotting sharks with their dorsal fins cut off."
Humans kill as many as 73 million sharks a year according to the UAE's Environmental and Agricultural Information Centre, a subsidiary of the Ministry of Environment and Water. They are hunted for more than their fins. Shark liver oil is used in cosmetics and drugs. Shark skin is a popular leather and sandpaper. Teeth and jaws are sold as jewellery and curios and cartilage has been ground into powder and marketed as an anti-cancer drug.
Because the fish are widely feared, few fisheries adequately monitor or study sharks but some species have reported a decline of up to 90 per cent over the past three decades. They are also vulnerable to environmental damage, coastal development, pollution and the impact fisheries have on their prey. In recent years, the ministry has recorded the emergence of baby sharks on the coast of the Gulf. Often these small, harmless sharks seek shallow waters to find a meal of fish, squid and rays and to avoid being eaten by larger predators.
The ban extends to whale sharks, a filter feeder which is the largest species of fish alive. Although attacks by the creature is rare, the ministry advises swimmers to avoid the water if they spot the fish. The ministry did not advise shark hunters of potential fines for illegally catching the fish, nor did it explain the procedure for obtaining a licence. The decree issued by the ministry also limits the time of year and places in which hunting is permitted. Shark hunting has been banned between January and April and must be done more than five miles away from the coast, three miles from islands and one mile away from coral reefs.