x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Shark-fin traders thrive in UAE

Fishermen are said to be exploiting the northern and eastern coasts of the country, where policing and local rules are scarce.

More than 300 sharks, including these ones, were caught and will have their fins harvested.
More than 300 sharks, including these ones, were caught and will have their fins harvested.

Gourmands like them in soup, doctors prescribe them as cures and dealers trade them to get rich. That is why fishermen continue to flout the law and indiscriminately kill, maim and then discard as many sharks as they can catch. The fins are almost as good as gold.

In the UAE, where shark finning is illegal, traders nonetheless are increasingly exploiting the eastern and northern coasts of the country because of the lack of policing and local regulations, marine agencies have warned. "The practice of finning is widespread on the northern and eastern coasts, and action must be taken to prevent shark numbers from depleting," a spokesman for the Emirates Diving Association said.

Plummeting shark stocks worldwide and the untapped population of the Whitecheek shark, found along Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean shorelines, are helping to attract international fin traders, wildlife agencies warn. They say shark finning in this region has increased over the past decade because of the insatiable Far Eastern demand for the fins, improved fishing technology and traders looking for a profit. One pound of shark fins has a street value of US$300 (Dh1,100).

According to the last report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, in 2004, the UAE counts for around eight per cent of global shark fin exports. Since shark meat has little value, the fishermen usually remove the fins and then discard the carcasses, still alive in most cases. If dumped back into the sea, the sharks are unable to swim and slowly sink towards the bottom where they are often eaten alive by other fish.

UAE law makes it a crime "to catch living aquatic creatures to extract their eggs, skins, fins and any other parts thereof" or to throw dead fish waste and carcasses of whales and sharks in the fishing waters. Yet there seems to be little enforcement. The Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi has warned that fishermen practising finning in Abu Dhabi waters will be prosecuted. Its authority does not extend to other emirates, however, and a spokeswoman for the agency said: "The local marine agencies are the ones that should enforce the law." The Sharjah Environment and Protected Areas Authority was not available for comment yesterday.

Chris Teasdale, a marine environmental scientist with Nautica Environmental Associates, said: "The demand for shark finning as stocks deplete elsewhere around Asian markets means the Arabian Gulf is targeted further due to its rich shark life." Although the Whitecheek shark is not an endangered species, other species in the region face depletion. "Species such as the Spot-tail shark, Bowmouth guitarfish and the Blacktip Shark are also being targeted and they are classified as vulnerable," Mr Teasdale said.

Last Friday, divers near Dibba al Hisn, in Sharjah on the eastern coast, said they saw between 300 and 500 of mainly juvenile Whitecheek sharks among other species being taken off boats. "There were six to seven boats at around 4.40pm hauling sharks off," said Daniel Hawkings, a South African diver who spends every weekend in the northern and eastern emirates. "By the end, the beach was covered with the sharks who were hauled off one by one to be finned."

The Emirates Diving Association is trying to stem the shark-fin trade. Joint forces have been established between the EDA, the Ministry of Environment and international organisations in an effort to reduce the number of sharks caught in UAE waters by limiting the shark fishing to just a few species and sizes. Oli Taylor, an environmental consultant based on the eastern region, said that the sharks caught in the Emirates were from only a couple of species, including the Whitecheek. These are typically more prolific and faster-growing than some of the larger, more solitary sharks, often feeding on sardines. "They are still being overfished," he said.

It takes only low levels of finning over extended periods to get rid of the majority of reef-associated species, as well as the larger, longer-lived varieties, Mr Taylor said. shafez@thenational.ae