x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

We're going to need a bigger boat

In just three months of visits to the UAE's fish markets, Rima Jabado has revealed that the Gulf waters are teeming with twice as many species of shark as was previously thought.

Rima Jabado, a doctoral candidate at UAE University, takes DNA samples from sharks at the Abu Dhabi Fish Market last weekend. Jabado is currently working on a study of the various shark species in the Gulf.
Rima Jabado, a doctoral candidate at UAE University, takes DNA samples from sharks at the Abu Dhabi Fish Market last weekend. Jabado is currently working on a study of the various shark species in the Gulf.

Before dawn on Saturday, what must be one of the UAE's largest and best-fed cats steps out on to the commercial fishing dock in Abu Dhabi. Blinking into the glare of the surrounding electric lights, he begins to inspect the impressive buffet breakfast the nearby fishermen have thoughtfully laid out for him.

Back in the shadows, a less confident rival takes pot luck, reaching as stealthily as hunger will allow into a plastic box bulging with fish. He is quickly spotted and shooed away. No one bothers the confident tabby, though. He knows the rules. Once the auction is over, there will be more fish lying around than he could ever hope to eat.

He is obviously a well-known figure on the bustling port. So, too, is the woman in yellow rubber boots and green bandana, over to whom he saunters, as if to pass the time of day.

Since last October Rima Jabado, a 31-year-old Lebanese-born Canadian, has become a regular face at the docks and markets of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah. Her measuring tape, clipboard, surgical scissors and sample vials have long since ceased to attract attention.

Jabado, a PhD student at UAE University in Al Ain, is the lead scientist behind a 14-month study to find out how many species of shark live in the Gulf, their numbers and what they eat. The previous estimate was about a dozen, but just three months into her project she has already identified 25 species.

"It has been interesting as a woman just going and talking to all these fishermen," she says. "The fact that I can speak to them in Arabic obviously helps, but the fishermen and the people at the markets have opened their doors to me and they've been fantastic.

"They are pleased that someone is showing an interest. They even call me if there are sharks at 4am: 'You want us to get samples for you?'"

The Gulf Elasmo Project - an elasmobranch is a cartilaginous fish of a group that includes sharks and rays - is also looking at the role played by the UAE in the fin trade. Although some of the smaller species, such as the milk shark, still feature whole in traditional Emirati dishes, most sharks caught in the Gulf supply the demand for shark-fin soup in the Far East.

"It seems Dubai is serving as a hub for the trade in the region," says Jabado, who hopes to use DNA sampling to build an accurate picture of the fin trade.

This is but a small part of what she has learnt. By surveying the four major UAE landing sites up to four times each a week, Jabado will be able to build a picture sufficiently sensitive to distinguish between those sharks that live in the Gulf and those just passing through or breeding here.

It's a long, grinding schedule, and each time she hits a dock she has to work fast. Here in Abu Dhabi all the fish, including the smaller sharks, are laid out on the ground for inspection prior to the auction, which starts after the dawn prayer. Jabado must to find, measure and sample all the sharks before they are sold and taken away.

Luckily for her, the project has seized the imagination of a group of more than 70 volunteers. Two of them are here today: Katherine Hunt, a diving instructor at the Beach Rotana Dive Centre in Abu Dhabi, and Dr Andrew Bean, who teaches an MBA programme for the University of Leicester and serves as the excursion secretary of the Emirates Natural History Group.

With 4,000 specimens already in the bag, by next December Jabado aims to have sampled 15,000 sharks. She and her helpers certainly have the whole business down to a fine art. As Jabado identifies, sexes and measures the sharks, calling out the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's species codes, Bean fills out the survey forms and Hunt manages the ethanol-filled sample vials, into which Jabado drops the small piece of flesh she clips from each of the fish. "RHA, male, 3, 70.2cm…" is a small male Rhizoprionodon acutus, or milk shark, in the third stage of maturity.

Even to the fishermen, who refer to them collectively as "jarjur", the small sharks sitting in a folorn pile on the quayside seem identical. Working her way swiftly through them, Jabado seizes on one specimen. "Ooh, a snaggletooth," she says. "I love these!" Bean peers closely at the creature's gappy rictus. "Because of their cute smile?" he asks.

DNA testing will be the ultimate arbiter, but Jabado can identify most of the species on sight. A pair of metre-long sharks with black tips on their tails and fins, lying side by side, look similar. One, however, is a blacktip, while the other - distinguished only by a small ridge running part of the way along its back - is a spot-tail.

To minimise the chance of double-sampling, Jabado takes all her specimens from the last gill on the left side. Around the fringes of the auction are plastic boxes containing fish driven in from other locations. Rifling through one box full of small sharks, Jabado's rigour pays off when she finds some that she clipped in Dubai the day before.

Today is a slow day; so Jabado and her team have found fewer than 40 sharks. Although only seven snaggletooths have been seen since October, a number of common species are emerging. These include the grey, sharp-nosed, spot-tail, black-tip, white-cheek and the milk shark (so named because its consumption was once believed to boost lactation in nursing mothers).

Once the smaller fish are auctioned off, the action moves to the large dhows, whose crews have been waiting to unveil their prize catches. Jabado and her team are invited on board one to inspect the star of today's haul: a three-metre great hammerhead. Fetching Dh1,100 in a brief auction, it takes four of the Indian crew members to manhandle it ashore.

Jabado has so far found two out of three species previously rumoured to be living in the Gulf: one lemon shark and 15 great hammerheads. So far, no mako - a monster fish frequently mistaken for the great white. However, she says: "I believe the fishermen who say they have seen it. They know what they are talking about; especially the old pearl divers."

A quick visit to the nearby fish market to catch any stragglers she may have missed on the dockside, and Jabado is on her way. She left her home in Dubai at 3.30am to reach Abu Dhabi by 5am, and now she's back on the road. The day is young and she has to repeat the whole process in Ras al Khaimah and Sharjah.

Meanwhile, back on the dockside, the sun is up, the fishermen have dispersed and the cat conducts his own survey of the all-you-can-eat buffet left behind.