Arabian Gulf Sharks: Conservation Needs and Implications

sharks
I have always had an affinity for the ocean. Growing up on my father’s rickety old boat, it was my favorite place to be. He at the stern, and I at the bow, we would fish for hours on the Arabian Gulf. Between my scrawny legs was a palm-woven basket brimming with the day’s catch. Scales strewn across the boat, glistened like tiny stars, sending steady streams of light across my lap. On one particular day, I noticed my father struggling more than usual while reeling in a fish. Cursing under his breath, he stood up, using all his strength to pull: he had caught a shark. Without a moment’s thought, my father clobbered the shark, killing him violently, and threw him back into the ocean. Tiny crimson polka-dots decorated our blue boat. I stood paralyzed in horror, feeling warm tears run down my sunburned cheeks.

From fear and hatred to wonder and awe, shark invoke strong feelings. They are magnificent creatures that have remained unchanged for the last 350 million years.  Yet in recent years, their populations have declined rapidly due to anthropogenic causes such as overfishing, wasteful bycatch and other deliberate actions based on misinformation and perceived threat.

Sharks are slow growing, late to mature, and produce few young over long lifetimes. This makes them both especially vulnerable to overexploitation, and difficult to recover from depletion. Today, some populations of sharks are estimated to be at only 1% of their historical baseline.

Shark finning—the practicing of catching a shark, slicing off its fins, and discarding the carcass at sea—takes an extreme toll on shark populations. Every year, up to 73 million sharks are killed to support a burgeoning shark fin trade, aimed at Asian markets. Although shark fin lacks nutritional value, it remains a highly sought after delicacy, traditionally served as shark fin soup at Chinese weddings. A single bowl of soup can cost over $100 and is therefore seen as a symbol of wealth and social status.

Within marine ecosystems, sharks play a critical role. As alpha predators, sharks help maintain the balance of marine ecosystems by controlling the number and variety of species below them in the food web. For example, research has shown that tiger sharks influence the quality of seagrass beds, which their prey, dugongs and green sea turtles, forage on. In the absence of tiger sharks, prey numbers will go unchecked, and an important habitat is lost.

The Arabian Gulf is home to 25 known species of sharks, all of which are at risk of extinction. Though the majority of these species are caught as bycatch, there is a recent movement towards direct shark fishing for the Asian fin trade by Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. Together, these countries catch approximately 16, 751 tons annually, or 2.3% of reported global shark landings.

With many shark species near extinction, there is an urgent need for their protection. Several existing regional and international management tools have potential to aid in the conservation of sharks, although their implementation in the Gulf remains problematic. Of the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) that exist globally, the Arabian Gulf falls within the Regional Commission for Fisheries (RECOFI). RECOFI, however, has been ineffective at implementing regional fisheries initiatives, including the management of shared high-value stocks such as shrimp. This suggests limited usefulness in their sustainable management of low-value shark species. The International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management for Sharks was adopted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1999. It aims to ensure conservation, management, and long-term sustainable use of sharks, with emphasis on monitoring landings. Although this plan recommends that all shark-fishing countries develop a shark management plan by 2001, till this date, no Gulf state has developed one. Finally, while the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) is technically enforced in all Gulf states except Bahrain, its regulations only cover two species in the Gulf (whale sharks and sawfish). Additionally, CITES assumes effective export monitoring measures are in place, but this is difficult to ensure in the Gulf.

Given the inefficacy of these regional plans, perhaps the most direct method for ensuring the long-term sustainability of sharks lies within the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). MPAs are areas in the ocean that are closed to fishing, such as Marawah, Al Yasat, and Bul Syayeef in the UAE. Other informal MPAs, such as the banning of commercial fishing in Kuwait Bay, can also aid in the conservation of sharks populations.

Given the multitude of problems facing sharks in the Arabian Gulf and the inefficacy of existing management plans, their future in the region remains uncertain. There is a pressing need to elevate sharks’ reputation through educating consumers on the ecological consequences of their seafood choices, as well as through scientific research.

This article was published by en.v as part of a series of articles under Dow’s Marine Conservation Program, an initiative dedicated to marine conservation and the protection of Kuwait’s rich marine ecosystem. See more at www.alyaal.com

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