x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Sharks can only be saved 'through a united front'

Coordinated 'shark plan' between countries in the region needed to sustain stocks, scientists say.

A fisherman at Sharjah fish market where freshly caught sharks are brought in and auctioned.
A fisherman at Sharjah fish market where freshly caught sharks are brought in and auctioned.

DUBAI // Governments in the region need to work together to establish a common policy to manage overfishing of sharks in the Arabian Gulf, scientists said.

A report published this month recommends in-depth studies be carried out by environment agencies across the region to ascertain the extent of the damage.

"The way I see it, the Gulf is a tragedy," said Richard Peirce, one of the authors of the paper, which was published this month.

The report in the Journal of Fish Biology studies the types of sharks and rays which were caught in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Kuwait.

The most common sharks caught in Abu Dhabi over the seven-day "snapshot" window were small milk sharks, as well as larger "near-threatened" blacktipsharks.

It is part of a four-year study in the Gulf by the UK-based Shark Conservation Society.

Mr Peirce said the team conducting the research had already noticed disturbing changes in shark stocks.

"We are seeing fewer and fewer sharks all the time," he said. "This is a small piece of water, so its ability to repair and restock itself is limited compared to a major ocean system."

The paper calls for the UAE and other countries in the region to establish a "shark plan" in line with guidelines set down by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, to establish sustainable fishing practices.

Mr Peirce said it was important that countries establish a coordinated approach.

"My own view is that unless the GCC adopt a common policy towards fisheries and toward sharks that actually works, we're going to have very depleted stocks here," he said.

"It will require a common effort. They are a migratory species, and no one knows to what degree even very localised species are moving."

In separate research, a UAE University doctoral candidate, Rima Jabado, has spent the last two years cataloguing as many as 30 shark species in the country.

When her research is published in the summer, Ms Jabado will also make a case to the UAE Government for the adoption of a shark plan, which would involve a further detailed study to establish close estimates for the numbers of different shark species in the Gulf.

The research however, is likely to be costly, involving satellite tagging and genetic testing to determine the migratory movements of sharks, therefore underlining the need for cross-border cooperation.

"If populations are mixing, you need to work across governments to put together management plans," she said. "It can't be just the UAE protecting one migratory species, you need to have cross-jurisdictional management."

She said the studies were essential before the government could impose further regulations on fishing numbers. "The only way to know what numbers would be acceptable for a population to replenish itself is to carry out stock assessments," she said.

The UAE imposes a ban on shark fishing during the mating season between January and June.

In addition, the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi publishes statistics for shark catches throughout the year, although the statistics do not break down catches into particular species.

Ms Jabado said she has conducted workshops with the EAD to help them identify different species of sharks, and there were positive signs of greater interest in publishing new information.

The UAE is a huge exporter of shark fins to the far east, making up 8 per cent of Hong Kong's total imports of the product.

However, the majority of those exports are shipped through the UAE from other countries in the region. There are no figures for how much of that proportion is from local fisheries, but it is thought to be only a small fraction.

"Shark fishing within the UAE itself is not on a particularly large scale, and it is not the main issue," said Jonathan Ali Khan, maker of the documentary film Sharkquest Arabia. "What is important is that the UAE is a distribution hub."

He suggested any new laws may need to take that into account. "This region, and the UAE in particular, needs to decide whether it really wants to contribute to the global movement of offering sharks greater protection in the sea."

mcroucher@thenational.ae