In a soup for their fins

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In a soup for their fins

For most of us, the subject of sharks start and end with Discovery Channel’s popular show ‘Shark Week’ or 1980s’ hit ction thriller ‘Jaws’.

by Dhanusha Gokulan

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Published: Wed 22 Aug 2012, 9:25 AM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 2:27 PM

However, UAE- based marine scientist Rima Jabado is genuinely concerned about the depleting shark population in the Gulf waters.

A familiar face at the fish markets, Jabado has been interviewing and befriending fishermen in the UAE, taking stock of the popular shark species in the country and trying to put together a conservation plan for the threatened species.

Jabado said, “According to the fishermen whom I work with, shark stocks have dropped drastically in the warm waters offshore in the Gulf.”

One of the main reasons is the high demand for shark fins in Asia. There is a growing appetite for shark fins as an ingredient in soup. According to an AFP report, the global trade in shark fins totals hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and tens of millions of sharks around the world may be caught every year for their fins.

Some experts estimate that stocks of some shark species in onshore reef systems around the world have fallen by up to 90 per cent. According to a UN report, Dubai has become a major global supplier of fins.

The report stated that Dubai is the fifth largest exporter in the world. It is the auction point for fins not only from its own waters but also from Oman and other Middle Eastern and African nations that send sharks and fins to Dubai for sale. Dubai exports an estimated 500 metric tonnes of shark fins and other shark products a year to Hong Kong, to which roughly half the world’s shark fin production is shipped.

The trade is legal, though efforts are being made to ban the practice of “finning” — hacking the fins off sharks and throwing the rest overboard, often when they are still alive. Four years ago, under international pressure, the UAE joined the growing number of countries banning the practice.

The Lebanese-born Canadian majored in Marine Biology and Natural Resource Management in Australia. “I moved to the UAE to work on different projects. Sharks are something I have always been interested in. Surprisingly, there is very little information on sharks here in the UAE,” said Jabado.

Different countries had commissioned fisheries surveys which took place way back in the 1960s-1980s, added Jabado. “When I started my work three years back, there wasn’t anything about the status of sharks in the UAE. Fishermen are my first source of information and they say that they have seen a steady decline in the numbers,” said Jabado.

She stated that they are not aware of how many species are in the UAE, which of these species are in the Gulf, and how they are distributed on the coast.

Her research spans across the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah, and Sharjah. Jabado’s work includes identifying, measuring and collecting DNA samples and checking for sex of the sharks. She also conducts genetic tests, including bar coding the sharks which helps determine the species.

“My research is mostly baseline information which is fishery-dependent and that you get by going to the market in terms of numbers, diversity and seasonality of sharks. I am looking to provide the foundation for in-depth research. The research has brought on a million other questions,” she added.

According to the scientist, there are 30 different species of sharks in the UAE waters, of which 15 are threatened in other parts of the world.

“The sharks are found mostly in the waters of Qatar, Kuwait, and Iran. But my focus is on the UAE. Common smaller species are Milk sharks, slit-eye sharks, spot-tails and black tips. They are small,” added Jabado. Bigger shark species include the two different types of Hammerheads (great and scalloped), bull sharks, tiger sharks, and lemon sharks. Whale sharks are also found in the UAE, but fishing for them has been banned by the UAE Ministry of Environment and Water.

UAE’s tryst with sharks

Jabado is looking to find out if the sharks are threatened in the Gulf as well. Shark fishery is not new in the UAE. The UAE once used to be a fishing and pearl diving centre. Pearl divers were scared of sharks when they jumped in the water. Back then, sharks were caught as a bycatch. “In the last 15 years, fishermen have noticed a shift because sharks have become a lucrative business,” said Jabado.

Shark meat is a popular delicacy in many communities. Milk sharks are popular and there are specific shark recipes among Emiratis. A few expatriate communities from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan enjoy eating dry shark meat as well,” said Jabado. The cost of the fish depends on the species. A great hammerhead can be purchased for Dh2,000 and a milk shark is as cheap as Dh15.

Laws protecting sharks

The UAE government has some pieces of legislation protecting a few species. It is illegal to catch whale sharks. There is a substantial population of whale sharks around Qatar and there are a few in the UAE waters. Fishermen are sure that they are not supposed to catch them.

Also, finning is banned. Fishermen do not fish for sharks from January to May since it is the breeding season. This decree was reinstated in May 2011.

What is needed

According to Jabado, there is still not enough data to say if they are threatened or not. Satellite tagging would provide information on their behaviour and migration.

Jabado said that the biggest problem is that eight countries are bordering a little body of water and very little is being done to protect the species in collaboration. She said that awareness must be raised to protect different species. “Governments must try and regulate the trade in shark fins. A lot of people are not aware of the plight of sharks and their decreasing numbers,” added Jabado.

(With inputs from agencies)

Dhanusha Gokulan
Dhanusha Gokulan

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