Sharks released into Dubai waters get new lease of life after Atlantis breeding programme

Overfishing and coastal development have threatened marine ecosystems

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Sharks and rays bred in captivity have been released into the Arabian Gulf in an effort to safeguard the futures of two threatened species.

Eleven of the near-threatened Arabian carpet shark and four vulnerable honeycomb stingrays were released by conservationists into the shallow waters of the Jebel Ali marine reserve.

The sheltered bay with a gently sloping sandy seabed towards a rocky outcrop is the perfect habitat in which sharks and rays can thrive.

Once densely populated in the waters of the UAE, overfishing and coastal development have threatened marine ecosystems, and the precious sea-life that exist within its borders.

A ray of hope as the UAE shark population gets a boost

A ray of hope as the UAE shark population gets a boost

That looks set to change with a government-backed programme by the Atlantis Lost Chambers Aquarium, where marine scientists have carefully reared and nurtured the latest batch of sharks and rays ready for release.

“One of our key pillars is marine conservation, because Atlantis is home to 65,000 marine animals,” said Kelly Timmins, director of marine animal operations and sustainability at The Atlantis on The Palm Jumeirah.

“These species are not endangered but they are native to this area. Unfortunately, they are on a critical rating.

“The most important about doing this kind of release is to ensure everybody understands sharks are not vicious predators that are after them as soon as they get into the water.

“We want to show different species of sharks and show it's completely normal to release them back into their natural environment.”

The two-year-old sharks released were about 50cm in length and are expected to grow up to a metre and live for about 20 years. They are unlikely to leave the bay in which they were released throughout their lifetime.

Nine species of shark and ray fall under the Atlantis breeding programme, including eagle rays, cowtail and porcupine rays.

“Sharks and rays are solitary animals, they're totally fine just swimming off and finding their own way and a new life in the ocean,” said Ms Timmins.

“There are many sharks and ray species, especially around the coast of the UAE.

“We've been so fortunate to see some larger predators over the last year, such as killer whales in the Arabian Gulf.

“There are big sharks out there too but they wouldn't be coming so close into shore to be much of a threat to these smaller sharks.”

Over fishing

Shark finning around the world is the biggest threat to the ocean’s apex predator, that provides a critical role in preserving healthy marine ecosystems.

The gruesome practice is when a fin is cut from a live shark, before it is returned to the ocean to die a slow and painful death. The fins are used to make a soup popular in Chinese communities.

Despite new protective regulations introduced around the world, a recent study published in the Science journal showed shark mortality increased 4 per cent in coastal fisheries in 150 countries between 2012 and 2019.

However, in regulated fisheries such as those across the Atlantic and western Pacific, shark deaths fell by about 7 per cent.

The UAE is playing its part in attempting to rescue sharks from oblivion, said Hiba Al Shehhi, director of biodiversity at the Ministry of Climate Change and the Environment

“This is one of the successful breeding stories that we are really proud of,” she said.

“Sharks are one of the most important species that actually control fish in the wild and help us balance that ecosystem.

“Having these species released, as one of the most endangered species, is really a successful story for the UAE.”

Multiple shark species exist in the Arabian Gulf.

They include the giant whale shark, tiger shark, tawny nurse shark, sicklefin lemon shark, sandbar shark, bull shark and reef shark.

“We have done a red list exercise a couple of years ago and unfortunately we found that, like the rest of the world, shark numbers are declining,” said Ms Al Shehhi.

“A lot of people don't realise how many species of sharks we have and what they do.

“People get scared of sharks, when many are actually peaceful.

“They rarely come near people, and they are one of the priority species in these ecosystems with a tremendous role to play.”

Updated: January 26, 2024, 7:46 AM