A four-year action plan to save dozens of shark and ray species from the brink of extinction has been released by the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment.
The National Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks 2018-2021 gives concrete steps to develop public awareness and strictly enforce legislation to protect sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras.
“The [plan] is part of the ministry’s strategy to preserve the UAE’s biodiversity, and ensure the long-term survival of sharks and rays,” said Hiba Al Shehhi, acting director of the ministry’s biodiversity department.
The waters of the Arabian Gulf and the Sea of Oman are home to 43 shark species and 29 ray species. Of those species, two out of five are classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.
The report’s data was largely based on research on fisheries, trade, sharks and rays by Dr Rima Jabado, the regional co-chair of the Indian Ocean IUCN SSC Shark Specialist Group and a leading contributor to the action plan.
"The report was prepared because there was a need to pull together the available information on sharks and rays in the UAE and develop a plan to improve their conservation and management," said Dr Jabado, who is also the founder and lead scientist of Gulf Elasmo Project.
The ministry has simultaneously released the UAE Shark Assessment Report, the government’s first overview of national shark research and conservation policies. Its database will be used as a baseline for the national shark conservation plan.
The plan’s effectiveness will be measured by reviewing community awareness, improved management of marine protected areas and the extinction risk posed to individual shark species.
“Awareness is definitely increasing in the UAE; however, there is still limited capacity to undertake research,” said Dr Jabado.
Priorities were developed through meetings and workshops with government authorities and non-government organisations, including the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Emirates Wildlife Society World Wildlife Fund. The ministry must continue working closely with these authorities as well as local and regional research groups for the plan to succeed, said Dr Jabado.
“The plan outlines some of the key immediate actions in detail, but these should focus on improving species-specific data collection from landings, undertaking research on critical habitats and, most importantly, implementing our current legislation, especially those dealing with the protection of threatened species such as the green sawfish, one of the most threatened marine species in the world,” she said.
Fishermen have reported declining catches of sharks as their populations are quickly dwindling. Catches are now dominated by just six species of shark, according to the action plan.
Sharks are highly prized by commercial and recreational fishermen for their fins, meat and gill plates. They represent about 1.5 per cent of total catch by commercial fisheries. Little of this is destined for local dinner plates, however.
“The country appears to be serving as a transit hub and processing point for many shipments from the Middle East and northern Africa,” said the action plan. “Data on species traded and information on trade dynamics remain challenging to collect.”
In addition to overfishing, the populations of these great predators have suffered from land and sea-based pollution, coastal development, tourism activities, habitat alternation and climate change. “However, the magnitude of these potential impacts is likely to be small in comparison to fishing,” the plan notes.
A seasonal ban of all sharks and rays during the main breeding season from February to June must be enforced if the species are to survive, said Dr Jabado.
Sharks grow and mature slowly and produce few young annually, making them easily susceptible to overfishing. It takes many years for the species to recover.
High-risk species such as the green sawfish, whale sharks and hammerhead sharks have benefited from targeted management measures.
The action plan will be reviewed and revised at the end of four years in 2021.