Although it is an exaggeration to say that you are more likely to be bitten by Uruguayan footballer Luis Suarez than by a shark, there is no doubt that sharks have received an undeservedly bad press and are still hugely under-appreciated.
The movie ‘Jaws’ did a great deal of harm to the image of sharks which is a pity, as they are extremely important type of fish that play a vital role in marine ecosystems. While some sharks, such as the great white tiger, blue mako and hammerhead shark are apex predators at the top of the food chain, and are potentially dangerous to humans. Most are small, harmless creatures that go about their daily lives without posing any threat to people at all.
Sharks have been evolving for over 420 million years and have developed beautiful adaptations for living in the sea. There are 470 species of living sharks ranging in size from the dwarf lantern shark (only 17 cm long) to the whale shark, the largest fish in the world (12 meters, but it won’t eat you as it feeds on plankton).
I have been fortunate during my life as an ichthyologist to have worked with some of the leading shark experts in the world, including Dr Jack Randall from Hawaii, author of the book ‘Sharks of Arabia’, and Dr. Len Compagno, who described a new species of megamouth shark several years ago.
Sharks are common in the Gulf and support a lucrative fishery for shark fins, a prized ingredient of shark fin soup, a dish that is regarded as a delicacy in the Far East. Dubai, where frequent shark fin auctions are held, now ranks amongst the top five export hubs in the world for shark fins that are destined for Hong Kong, the global epicenter of the fin trade.
According to the latest fisheries statistics, over 20,000 tons of sharks were caught in the Gulf, in 2011. Although we do not know the size of local shark populations, this size of catch, year after year, will inevitably reduce their numbers significantly, causing unknown impacts on marine ecosystems. Local shark fishermen are already complaining that their catches have declined sharply in recent years.
For this reason, UAE has recently introduced strict regulations for controlling shark catches. They include a ban on any catches of whale sharks and sawfish and a ban on all shark fishing during their breeding season (January to end April). Other regulations state that sharks may only be caught using hook-and-line and not by using trawl, gill or drift nets, explosives or poisons. Also, the whole shark must be caught and taken to the fish market – it is illegal to cut off the fins and toss the carcass back into the water.
Sadly, these conservation measures may be too late for some sharks. Gillnetting in the sea is banned in many countries around the world but it is extensively practiced in the Gulf. It is a ruthlessly efficient and indiscriminate method of fishing as any sea life that is caught in the nets eventually drowns, including sharks, bony fishes, turtles and even small whales. Furthermore, Ghost Nets, gillnets that have been abandoned as they have snagged onto rocks or reefs, continue killing fishes for many years as they are made out of nylon.
It may seem odd for humans to conserve an animal that is a potential predator but we need to recognise that, in the realm of the sea, sharks rule and we must allow them to continue doing their ‘royal’ duties.
Professor Mike Bruton
MTE Studios Director,
Bahrain Science Centre.