More than 73 million sharks are killed by humans every year – that’s three every second. So it’s little wonder that between 90 and 99 percent of some local shark populations have already been wiped out.
In March, marine environment campaigners and divers around the world let out a collective cheer as five new species of sharks and rays were added to a list of protected species. The decision was made following a meeting in Bangkok of delegates from 170 countries, organised by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement between governments that aims to ensure trade doesn’t threaten the survival of any wild animals or plants.
Oceanic whitetips, porbeagles, three species of hammerheads and both manta rays (all classified as threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list) have now been added to a list of species that are banned from being traded. Of the 30 species of elasmobranch (the technical name for sharks and rays) in the UAE’s seas, more than half are on the verge of extinction, but fortunately two of the species to have recently been granted protection are common in UAE waters: the hammerhead, and the oceanic whitetip.
Ania Budziak, associate director of science and policy at Project Aware, a global movement of scuba divers determined to protect the planet, called the decision ‘a significant historic achievement for marine species in general, specifically manta rays, which are the first elasmobranch species to be listed under CITES on the first attempt’. She notes that scalloped hammerheads, among the most endangered and commonly taken in illegal fishing operations for their valuable fins, received a surprising majority. ‘Sharks play a critical role [in the UAE and Oman’s marine ecosystem] as they are top of the ocean’s food chain,’ explains Christophe Chellapermal, owner of diving company Nomad Ocean Adventures. Chris and other divers in the UAE and Musandam are expecting a big increase in shark sightings thanks to the recent restrictions on trading. ‘If sharks were to disappear, the ecosystem would collapse and the sea would die. The fish on which sharks prey feed on algae – if they were allowed to remain in the waters and breed significantly, the algae levels would drop considerably, opening up the sea to be ravaged by disease,’ he explains. Though the latest measures offer more protection to species of shark found in the region’s waters, Chris believes there is still more that can be done. ‘Many sharks are killed before they reach the age at which they can reproduce, so a regulation on the age at which sharks can be caught would be a critical change. It’s especially true for hammerhead sharks, who carry their embryos in their belly, rather than lay eggs.’
The type of sharks spotted by Chris and his team on diving trips changes throughout the year, but they expect to see all in greater numbers over time. ‘In March and April, we usually see the leopard shark; from April to September we have regular encounters with whale sharks,’ he explains. ‘Grey reefs, blacktips, whitetips, hammerheads and tiger sharks can be spotted throughout the year – if you’re lucky.’ He also reveals that they’re currently seeing more leopard sharks in the area – as many as one per dive. ‘Hopefully that will always happen with the new regulations,’ he adds.
Chris notes that with 70 percent of the planet covered by water, many populations, including the UAE and Oman, depend on the sea as a resource for day-to-day survival. ‘I don’t like to think what would happen if sharks were to die out – the consequences would be disastrous,’ he says. ‘Local shark fishermen are condemning their own way of living through over-fishing, and killing the region’s long-standing traditions.’
Get educated and pitch in
This movement connects divers around the world who wish to do their bit to protect the ocean. A monthly newsletter sends out updates, and you can connect with other divers who are organising events or campaigns in your local area.
Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo
Until May 15, the aquarium hosts a shark exhibition showcasing 15 different species, as well as eight species of ray. Interactive presentations will be conducted by aquatic and marine specialists to educate visitors. From Dhs55.
The Dubai Mall (04 448 5200).
Elasmobranch Protection Group UAE
This group raises awareness of the plight of the UAE’s sharks, sawfish and ray populations, which are endangered here and worldwide. You can help by attending one of the meetings, reporting any concerns and spreading the word.