x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Shark conservation efforts in Musandam

A month-long mission in the Straits of Hormuz illustrates just how few sharks are swimming in the waters off the UAE and Oman.

Al Reeve, a marine biologist with Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, examines and takes tissue samples from the dead hammerhead shark found in a fish market in Khasab.
Al Reeve, a marine biologist with Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, examines and takes tissue samples from the dead hammerhead shark found in a fish market in Khasab.

MUSANDAM, OMAN // After three fruitless nights spent searching for sharks in the waters off the northern tip of the Musandam Peninsula, the conservation team headed to the mainland for supplies.

There they found their first shark - in a tiny backstreet fish shop in Khasab, where they stopped to get bait. Fishermen had brought in the three-and-a-half-metre hammerhead that morning, after catching it in little Al Hablayn bay nearby.

"This is the first shark we have found since we arrived, and it's dead," said Al Reeve, a project scientist for The Shark Project - a mission being run by Oman's Ministry of Fisheries Wealth (CQ) and the Sultan Qaboos University.

"It highlights precisely the reason we are here. We want to raise awareness about the environmental impact of taking these predators from the sea."

Mr Reeve was part of a team of shark conservationists aboard a specifically commissioned vessel, the 83-foot Ekaterina, which set sail from Fujairah Marina on February 18. The four-week mission in the Strait of Hormuz is an attempt to assess the risk of extinction facing a variety of species.

Mr Reeve, 30, examined the dead hammerhead and took a tissue sample from its gills. It was a process he had planned to carry out with live sharks, if they had caught any, before releasing them with an electronic tag to track their movements and learn more about their breeding habits.

This shark was female, and had probably given birth to at least three or four litters of pups before being caught.

"She at least had a chance to breed, which is some consolation," he said. "The fishermen are indiscriminate with what they catch, so it is not always this way."

Numbers of the great hammerhead have declined by 90 per cent in the past 20 years, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw). The whale shark, a gentle giant that feeds on plankton and is thought to use Arabian waters for breeding grounds, is listed as at risk of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Approaching this weekend's halfway mark, the mission had managed to tag just one live fish: a two-metre lemon shark.

Jonathan Ali Khan is the founder of Sharkquest Arabia, a Dubai-based organisation that has collaborated with The Shark Project. Sharkquest is a conservation initiative sponsored in part by the Save Our Seas Foundation and set up with US$180,000 (Dh661,000), the largest single grant ever to be awarded by the Emirates Foundation.

The filmmaker is dedicating his time on board to seeking footage of sharks for two documentaries he began working on two years ago.

"This initiative is trying to bring the region up to speed with the rest of the world in terms of conservation," said Mr Khan. "Sharks are an "apex predator," they manage the rest of the ecosystem." (The term is used for predatory species that face no species preying upon them.)

"Nobody knows what will happen if they are overfished to the point of extinction, but it will be something like taking all the CEOs out of companies - nature will be left with no direction," Mr. Khan said. He also noted that sharks "appeal to our dark side".

"It is all too easy to see them as some kind of monster, but actually sharks embody the epitome of mankind's lack of concern about how we impact the natural world," he said. "Our capacity for failure to understand its qualities and our lack of willingness to try to understand," he said, "… is the reason sharks are declining so rapidly today."

The Shark Project team includes scientists from the region and further afield: Rima Jabado, a researcher from the UAE University in Al Ain who is trying to determine how much local fishing is contributing to the rapid decline of sharks; Ali al Hafez and Dareen al Mojil, marine biologists from Kuwait Environmental Research and Awareness; and Dr Ralf (Perry) Sonntag, the director of Ifaw in Germany.

Including regional participants was essential, Mr Khan said. "We will be able to combine the perspectives of all the researchers to allow us to assess the realistic status of shark numbers. We are also covering other areas of the Arabian seas."

Mr al Hafez, who serves as chief cameraman on the Sharkquest documentaries, said it was important that his fellow Arabs were exposed to the work of the project. "We really need awareness about conservation," he said. "When expats first came to the region, they couldn't find any Arabic people to work with to conserve the environment, because nobody knew it needed to be done.

"Now things are changing and this film will help speed things up. It's not true that Arabs are not interested in nature, we just need awareness about how to take care of it."

Mr al Hafez added he hoped the documentary would reach schools through the ministry of education and local television networks.

"We need to target the kids," he said. "Our vision is not just for tomorrow, it is for the future. Change will come one day. We just have to keep pushing."