Sharks have been in the oceans for about 450 million years. The apex predators survived five big extinction events but overfishing and coastal development have made them the most threatened species living in the region’s waters.
Divers are now being offered the chance to learn about endangered sharks to help encourage more protection for them.
The workshops hosted by the international Sharks Educational Institute are being staged in Fujairah and Abu Dhabi this month to help promote marine conservation in the UAE.
According to the Environmental Agency Abu Dhabi, 23 shark species are classified as endangered or critically endangered in the seas around the region.
Three species in the vulnerable or near-threatened category are the blacktip reef shark, Arabian bamboo shark and grey bamboo shark, and will be the focus of educational workshops.
“Our principal focus of work is the marine environmental education of youngers, and their active participation in conservation of the sharks' species in their natural habitats,” said Fernando Reis, executive director of the non-profit Sharks Educational Institute.
“Our vision is to enhance the public general knowledge of the marine life balance, based on sharks' conservation, and create new educational events geared towards a better knowledge of the marine life balance.
“These workshops will be used to promote shark conservation in general.
“Overall the coastline of the emirates, the gulf and Indian Ocean are at threat due to the record levels of development that is continuing and destroying their natural habitat.”
The three sharks profiled are smaller than most others, and vulnerable to being trapped in fishing nets.
Strong industrial coastal development has destroyed huge swathes of natural habitats of sharks, causing numbers found in the waters of the UAE to deplete by as much as 50 per cent in the past 30 years, according to environmentalists.
Blacktip reef and bamboo sharks live in close association with coral reef habitats, that are especially sensitive to anthropogenic degradation, where environmental changes forces ecosystems to decline.
Coral reefs are also at risk from climate change due to industrial development and general public pollution.
“These particular sharks swim close to the bottom, so are at risk from fishing nets, whilst pelagic sharks swim in deeper waters and they are being targeted by industrial fishing,” Mr Reis said, who is visiting from the Canary Islands where he runs several conservation projects.
“Regulations are in place for shark fishing, but there is a more specific problem in the emirates in regards habitats.
“The Environment Agency is doing a terrific job of marine conservation but there can be a wider knowledge of these sharks within the diving community and elsewhere.
“These sharks are small, and although there are more than 500 species the majority only grow to a maximum of a metre.
He said fishermen target other fish but often catch these smaller sharks in their nets by accident.
“They cannot survive for a long time in nets or out of the water,” he said.
Abu Dhabi hosts approximately 110 square km of both natural and planted mangroves which contributes greatly to the area’s rich biodiversity.
According to the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, the overall number of commercial fish in the UAE has declined by 80 per cent in the last 30 years.
The agency’s own stock assessment has revealed 71 per cent of its fisheries resource is over-exploited, with Hammour, Farsh and Shaari all at some degree of risk through excessive and insensitive fishing methods.
Educational talks with fisherman are common place in Spain and Portugal for recreational sport fishing and commercial fishing.
The SEI is hoping to develop a similar programme in co-operation with the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, a philanthropic endowment in Abu Dhabi providing targeted grants to individual species conservation projects.
Diving workshops are taking place on January 12-13 at Dibba, Fujairah at Free Style Divers and on January 26-27 at the Beach Rotana Spa Hotel, Abu Dhabi.
Workshops will start with classroom activities to assess the level of knowledge and understanding of those taking part.
The second stage involves four dives to assess how divers behave in the water and how they react when confronted by a shark.
Divers will be visiting renown dive sites where sharks have been most recently spotted in the hope of catching a glimpse.
“Nobody can guarantee we will be able to see these sharks, but these two places are the most likely for that to happen,” Mr Reis said.
“I expect to find them, but if we don’t it will be more complicated for us.
“We can teach divers how they can measure the length of these sharks, so they can make their own records when diving in the future, should they be lucky enough to come across any of these endangered species.”
Kathleen Russell, founder of the Al Mahara Dive Centre, that’s hosting the dive workshop in Abu Dhabi, said bamboo sharks are becoming harder to spot.
“Further west of Abu Dhabi when the weather is cooler and the breakwater out by Emirates palace are good spots to see these sharks, particularly on night dives, but it is getting much harder,” she said.
“We know they are in decline and we often see sharks at the fish market that have been caught by fishermen.”