Dozens of rare sharks being sold for fin soup in Dubai market

Dubai-based vet Peter Jaworski recently counted 140 sharks during a single visit to the Deira fish market, including 40 threatened thresher sharks.

DUBAI // Rare sharks are being sold at Deira fish market so their fins can be hacked off to make soup.

Peter Jaworski, a vet in Dubai, counted 140 sharks during a single visit to the market. They included smooth hammerheads, bigeye threshers, common threshers and a mako, all of which the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists as threatened.

There were also common blacktips, hardnose sharks and a spinner shark, which are classed as near-threatened.

Dried fins on sale at the market included one from a whale shark. Trading in products from this species is banned by an international treaty.

“The most tragic was the thresher,” said Dr Jaworski, who is involved in a shark-research project. “This is very rare, usually it’s not even seen by divers because it’s a deep-sea species.”

Dr Jaworski said: “If someone sees a thresher shark in the water, it’s a sensation. It was shocking because I’ve never seen so many thresher sharks at the same time and the same place, there were about 40.”

Hammerheads on sale at the market included pregnant females. Dr Jaworski believes the numbers being caught pose a threat to the populations of some species, which could have a drastic impact on the entire marine ecosystem.

“The shark is the top predator, and when the top predator disappears there is a critical chain reaction. If you have no predators the fish they would normally prey on grow in number because there are no sharks to control them, and they eat everything else, so the populations of smaller fish are threatened.”

The shark-fishing industry is driven by the lucrative trade in shark fin, which is dried and used to make shark-fin soup, a sought-after delicacy in the Far East.

The shark specialist group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates the global value of the shark-fin trade to be at least US$540 million (Dh2 billion), and possibly as high as US$1.2 bn.

Dried fins are sold at Deira in 4kg parcels for between Dh400 and Dh600. The cost fluctuates daily and some species command higher prices than others.

Most of the fins are exported to Hong Kong, though the soup is available in restaurants in Dubai for about Dh70 a bowl.

The trade in whole sharks is legal. Shark-finning, in which the fins are cut off live sharks as they are landed on boats and the remainder of the fish is thrown overboard, was banned by the Ministry of Environment and Water in 2008.

Rima Jabado, a marine biologist, said a lack of information about shark populations off Oman, the source of many of those sold at Deira, and the level of fishing in the Sultanate meant it was impossible to determine the impact of the trade.

Ms Jabado will be one of the speakers at a four-day shark conservation conference in Dubai next month. She will talk about the role of fishermen in conservation.

“We need to speak to the fishermen and find out exactly why they fish for sharks, what incentives they have,” she said. “Are there particular species they’re targeting and others they are not?

“It’s important to educate them in terms of species, how they identify the different species, and have logbooks on the boats where they can record their catches. Some species will probably have to be evaluated in terms of what’s happening with their populations.

“Based on that, there need to be incentives to tell the fishermen that this particular species is threatened, so if you catch it, you need to release it.”

She said most of the sharks sold at Deira were caught by fishermen from other countries.

“The UAE is the fifth-largest exporter in the world for shark fins but it is a channel for sharks that are caught regionally. Probably 95 per cent of the sharks at the Deira fish market are not from the UAE.

“The UAE needs to start regulating the trade and controlling what species are allowed to be brought into the country.”