New measures to protect sharks in UAE waters as numbers dwindle

Updated laws will protect more species of sharks and rays from overfishing

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Sharks and rays threatened by extinction in UAE waters are expected to be added to a protected list this year.

The extinction threat to coral reef sharks and rays is almost double that of all known shark and ray species, research published in the Nature Communications journal has shown.

Fifty-nine per cent of inhabitants of coral reefs are under threat because of overfishing, habitat loss and climate change.

Commercial fishing of some sharks and rays is already prohibited between March and June in the UAE to protect breeding populations, but they can be caught and sold in markets during the rest of the year.

A new Cites― the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora ― listing for 56 species proposed at the 2022 Conference of the Parties in Panama will come into force this year, restricting trade to only fish caught legally and sustainably.

Cites is an inter-government agreement to protect biodiversity by ensuring wildlife trade is regulated and sustainable.

Extra protection for critical marine life

“Blacktip reef sharks and spot tail sharks were recently listed as part of the big proposal of listings of the group of requiem sharks,” said Elsayed Mohamed, regional director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

“Ministerial order number 42 [in the UAE] regarding the fishing and trading of sharks, does not prohibit the catching of these species yet, but it is expected to be updated by including the new Cites listing once it enters into force.”

Regulations in the UAE stipulate that sharks must not be caught within eight nautical miles of the mainland, and cannot be caught solely for their fins.

Sharks are mainly caught for food, with their liver oil, skin, fins and cartilage used in many products, while they are also snared as incidental by-catch by fisherman after other fish such as tuna or barracuda.

The Ministry of Climate Change and Environment has already banned fishing of any Cites-listed sharks and rays to protect at-risk species, while pleasure boats are also prohibited from shark fishing.

Gulf waters are home to about 153 species of sharks, rays, skates and other similar fish, with more than half now considered threatened.

A four-year national action plan for the conservation and management of sharks was launched in 2018.

It aimed to better understand different species and fisheries, and their role in the wider marine ecosystem, while developing effective policy and protection mechanisms.

Coral reefs at risk

Research by the Earth to Ocean Research Group at Simon Fraser University in Canada assessed 134 species of coral reef sharks and rays around the world.

Scientists there found 59 per cent were classified as threatened, while 14 species were critically endangered. A further 24 species were endangered and 30 per cent of all species were vulnerable.

The global extinction risk of sharks and rays, as a percentage of threatened species, on coral reefs is almost double that of all 1,199 sharks and rays, the study concluded.

The growing risk of coral reef decline, in which sharks and rays play a pivotal role in a healthy ecosystem, could be hard to reverse.

“Healthy populations of coral reef sharks and rays are so critical ― as widespread exploitation and decline of sharks has knock-on effects on both their prey and wider marine communities,” said Sharon Livermore, director of Marine Conservation Programme at IFAW.

“Declining shark numbers ― and the size of individual sharks ― directly reduces natural mortality in their prey.

“This contributes to changes in abundance and distribution of small shark and ray species, marine mammals and turtles, all of which have few other natural predators.

“Loss of sharks and rays can change predator-prey interactions and community structure, compromise food web dynamics and stability, and risk ecosystem productivity and services.”

20-year decline

Out of approximately 30 shark species found in the Arabian Gulf, more than 75 per cent are listed within the threatened categories on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.

Shamsa Al Hameli, an assistant scientist from the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi, is doing her PhD at UAE University on Elasmobranchs in Abu Dhabi.

“Several of our shark species take years to reach maturity, that includes Requiem sharks,” she said.

“Having them all in one category makes it easier to identify and protect them.

“It is not easy to tell the difference between several of these sharks, and some species would require genetic analysis to be properly identified.”

Results from a baited underwater video survey carried out in UAE waters recorded 20 species of sharks and rays out of 129 survey points.

Two species, Arabian Carpetshark (Chiloscyllium arabicum) and Stingrays (Himantura spp.) accounted for 60 per cent of the observations.

“Unlike bony fish, shark populations could take a decade or more to recover,” Ms Al Hameli said.

“Every year before the banning season, enumerators from EAD carry out an awareness campaign reminding fisherman and fish markets of the ban season.

“The agency also participates in Shark Week annually, where talks are given to the general public about the local shark diversity.”

Bull and tiger sharks are two species in rapid decline in regional waters, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said.

Also decreasing are the halavi guitarfish, spinetail devil ray, great and scalloped hammerhead shark, blacktip reef shark, white shark and bluntnose sixgill shark.

The grey reef shark, blacktip shark, graceful shark, gulper shark, dusky shark, whitetip reef shark, zebra shark, blue shark and oceanic whitetip shark are also in decline, while whale sharks and basking sharks are considered endangered in Gulf waters.

A broadening of fishing restrictions to cover more Gulf species listed by Cites would encourage populations to recover, Ms Al Hameli said.

Updated: March 04, 2023, 4:58 PM