Asian demand drives shark trade

Piles of sharks for sale in Deira fuel shark fin trade and drive species toward extinction.

United Arab Emirates - Ras Al Khaimah - April 15, 2010:

NATIONAL: A fisherman hands half of a shark to a customer at the Ras Al Khaimah Fish Market in Ras Al Khaimah on Thursday, April 15, 2010. The rising cost of petrol has affected their profit. Amy Leang/The National

DUBAI // As the sun set behind Port Rashid, a dusty lorry with Omani numberplates pulled in to the bustling Deira fish market.

Inside, beneath a pile of ice and several boxes of sardines, lay six 2.5-metre-long bull sharks.

As the lorry was unloaded, the big fish were placed on a concrete slab that runs across the rear of the market.

Next to the adult bulls, juveniles of the same breed were arranged along with black tips, silky and Java sharks, white spotted guitar fish, one snaggletooth, a sickle fin lemon shark and a rare leopard shark.

By the time it was dark, the sharks' fins had been carved off and were being sold to the highest bidders.

Salem, the Omani fish merchant who drove his lorry for six hours from Muscat to the market, said pickings were slim these days.

"It's not like it used to be," he said. "I've been doing this for 20 years and until three years ago there were too many sharks.

"Truck after truck used to arrive every day, and all along here would be full of sharks. Now not so many, I don't know why."

Much like the shark found in a shop by the team in Khasab, these animals are caught for their commercial value. The meat is sold locally and the liver oil is used to treat wooden dhows. But the real prize for the fishermen is the fins.

One kilo of shark fins sells for upwards of Dh300 in Deira, and goes on to fetch almost six times that amount in Hong Kong seafood-trading centres, where the dried fins are used in soup.

The bland concoction is a delicacy in the Far East, and one bowl can sell for as much as US$150 (Dh550). The demand drives a worldwide trade in sharks, with up to 100 million killed each year.

Jonathan Ali Khan, a local conservationist who is making a documentary about sharks off the coast of Musandam in the Strait of Hormuz, said the UAE had always been pivotal in the shark fin market.

"Dubai is a hub for the redistribution of fins from different sources in the region. At least eight to 12 per cent of the fins that end up in Hong Kong come from Dubai," he said.

That proportion, he said, "has decreased slightly in recent years, but the demand is only increasing".

Twelve months ago, Dr Ralf Sonntag, the director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Germany, was in Doha for the 15th Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). At that meeting it was proposed to add four species of shark to the list, due to their rapid decline.

Protection for these animals was critical, he said. "It would affect millions, if not billions of people, if shark populations were wiped out - basically anyone who is dependent on marine protein. We don't yet know the full consequences but it would have a huge global impact."

Increased education and awareness were urgently needed to prevent further losses, Dr Sonntag said.

"The trouble is fishermen see sharks as the same as other fish, but they are not the same. Sharks are among the slowest-reproducing marine species - they live for a long time and give birth to very few young. This, added to their high value, means they are in serious trouble."

With demand from Japan and China posing the biggest threat to Arabian sharks, projects such as Mr Khan's film are necessary to bolster efforts towards conservation of the species.

"We showed the promo for the film at the Cites meeting and it seemed to have an immediate effect," he said. "Many people are relenting to economic pressure without knowing the ecological threats."

Al Reeve, a scientist at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, said the region was dangerously "close to the edge" in terms of shark numbers.

"The Arabian seas can only withstand fishing pressure for so long," he said. "Fishermen have the biggest voices in Oman, so before the trade stops, the demand has to.

"That will take education, awareness and time. I just hope we have enough time."