A lucrative trade in fins through local fish markets is a threat to shark numbers in the region, environmentalists warn. Now delegates are gathering in Doha to consider added protections for various species. Vesela Todorova reports It is 7am and the Deira fish market is ready for business. The floor has long been swept, the stalls cleaned and covered with fresh ice. On them, neat stacks of fish have been arranged according to size.
An army of men in blue overalls is carrying the last of the fish to the counters where traders are welcoming their first customers. Ten metres away, in the delivery car park, business is already wrapping up. This is where the fish first arrive before they are carried through to the market. This is also the place to find the sharks that normally do not end up being sold in the fresh fish stalls most people visit.
Behind some of the parked vans and lorries are dead sharks, laid on top of plastic crates. This time there are only a few, and most are quite small. Jonathan Ali Khan stops in front of something that looks like a large piece of debris. Dark brown, with a crinkly, course surface, it is hard to believe this is an item for sale. "A whale shark!" he exclaims. Or rather, the dried fin of a whale shark, with an asking price of Dh3,000 (US$820). In Hong Kong, where most of the fins that are traded through Dubai end up, it will fetch as much as $12,000. This one probably came from a very young adult, which would have been about six or seven metres long.
Khan, a Dubai-based filmmaker whose documentary on the shark fin trade, Sharkquest Arabia, is due for release in October, says that around 10 days ago he was told that a carcass of what appeared to be a whale shark of similar size had appeared near Khasab, in Oman. "The carcass was floating in the harbour for days," he says. Twelve hours later and Khan is back at the market. There are more sharks now, laid out on a narrow concrete slab that runs through the middle of the car park. The traders say they were caught in Oman and will be auctioned later that evening.
Khan points out the species on sale: grey reef sharks, lemon sharks, carpet sharks and scalloped hammerheads. Most, including all the hammerheads, are young fish that have not had a chance to reproduce. A few metres away, two men have four fresh shark fins for sale. One of them, according to Mr Khan, also belongs to a whale shark, most likely a very young one. Its distinctive white patterns are clearly visible against its grey skin.
There are more fresh fins laid out on plastic sheets at one end of the car park. To the side, there is another sheet with heaps of dried fins. These, too, will be auctioned; traders say that in Hong Kong, Singapore or China they will fetch between $30 and $100 a kilo. The meat is also dried and exported to Sri Lanka but the profits of that business, apparently, are smaller. Already the potential buyers are milling around. One walks around with a calculator in hand. Another approaches the heaps, picks up a dried fin and studies it quickly, before wandering off into the fish market.
This market is a key link in a trading chain that has been a point of contention for environmentalists for years. Considered a delicacy in the Far East, shark fins are cooked in a soup. The fins are so sought after that many fishermen prefer to only harvest them, discarding the rest of the animal at sea. Many of the sharks die after prolonged suffering. Environmentalists are now hoping that a high-profile international meeting, which starts today in Qatar, will impose barriers on the trade. There, delegates will decide whether to include eight shark species in Appendix II of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).
That would impose restrictions on the international trade of the fish, a move that would have repercussions in the UAE, which is an important link in the chain that supplies Asian markets. Two of the shark proposals, put forward by Palau and the United States, cover five species that are traded in the UAE, two of which are particularly prominent. "In terms of this region, the two most important species are the great hammerhead and the scalloped hammerhead," said Dr Aaron Henderson, an assistant professor at the Sultan Qaboos University in Oman. "They are both regularly seen in fishery landings."
The great hammerhead, Sphyrna mokarran, is common in the Arabian Gulf and often caught by UAE fishermen. The scalloped hammerhead, S. lewini, is a staple for Omani fishermen. It is also one of the most highly valued in the international fin trade. And it is the fin trade that is responsible for the shark's decline, Dr Henderson says. "Sharks only started declining since the exploiting for fins started," he says. "If there was no fin trade, fishermen will not be catching sharks in such numbers."
Hammerheads are particularly vulnerable as they take a long time to reach maturity. Also, adult hammerheads prefer the open ocean, so it is pregnant females and juveniles that end up being caught. "This is what not to do if your aim is to avoid collapse. If these species get protection under Cites, it will cause huge amounts of difficulty for the people who trade in them. But it will be very beneficial for the sharks, which have been declining rapidly."
Last year, the UAE banned shark finning - the practice of cutting sharks' fins off at sea, and throwing away the rest. It is also illegal in Oman, one of the main suppliers to the UAE market. Dr Henderson says the measures have acted as a deterrent to the fishing effort. Obliged to carry whole shark carcasses to port, fishing boats fill up quicker and spend less time at sea. The proposals being discussed today in Doha would impose further restrictions, such as requiring the trade to be covered by a system of permits.
According to Dr Elsayed Mohammed, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, it would require the Ministry of Environment and Water to ensure any controlled fish entering the UAE were accompanied with a Cites permit. Catches and volumes of trade would be recorded and monitored, and countries would have to ensure that the industry is not harming wild populations, he says. If passed, the permit regime would not come into effect for 18 months, to give governments time to prepare. Even then, enforcement would not be easy.
"The only way is to prohibit this trade or they have to check each shipment fin by fin to check which is in Cites or not," Dr Mohammed says. It is precisely this point that leads some conservationists to urge the UAE to ban the trade altogether. "This will have a big impact on the trend and send a very strong conservation message," Dr Henderson says. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Environment and Water said it did not consider a ban necessary, as most of the sharks traded here were not landed in UAE waters.
Saif Mohammed al Shara, the ministry's executive manager of water and nature conservation, said the ministry would support proposals to include the porbeagle and the spiny dogfish - neither of which is found in UAE waters - in Appendix II. However, he did not comment on the UAE's position regarding the local species. He said that even if restrictions were put in place, they would not affect the UAE. "The UAE in itself is not a big market for shark fin consumption or production," he said. "Local production of shark fins is meagre due to the proper regulations in place to control that. The UAE is basically acting only as a re-export point for the shark fins coming from the African region."
Established in 1973, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), regulates the commercial trade of rare plants and animals. The meeting, starting in Doha today and due to conclude on March 25, will be attended by more than 1,500 delegates who will discuss 42 proposals. The convention has three regulatory options, in the form of appendices. The strictest, Appendix I, prohibits international trade and allows exchanges of plants and animals only in rare circumstances, usually for the purpose of scientific research. This covers some 530 animals, including cheetahs, snow leopards, tigers, cranes and sea turtles, as well as more than 300 plants. Appendix II, which covers 4,460 animals and 28,000 plants, allows trading, but introduces monitoring and regulations. The decisions to give a species Cites protection are taken at meetings held every three years. The first time a proposal is discussed, it needs unanimous approval to pass. If this is not possible, it is discussed again and then only a two-thirds majority is needed. Four proposals covering eight shark species are being discussed in Qatar. However, they are likely to meet opposition, especially from some Far Eastern countries. Appendix II already covers whale sharks and basking sharks. Now protection could be extended to the porbeagle (a type of mackerel shark), the spiny dogfish, the oceanic white-tip shark, the dusky shark, the sandbar shark, and the great, scalloped and smooth hammerheads. Although local data is not available, the World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that populations of the hammerhead species have declined by up to 80 per cent from the historical baseline. The fund estimates that up to 2.7 million scalloped and smooth hammerheads are traded internationally each year. firstname.lastname@example.org