What’s killing the sharks of the Persian Gulf?
by Kathy Xu
What comes to mind when thinking about Iran or the Middle East? War-torn? Deserts? Oil? Islamic state? Persian carpets? Perhaps the Iraq-Iran War?
Sharks are most likely not among your first thoughts. Yet, sharks can be commonly spotted along the waters of the Persian Gulf—or at least they used to be. Sandwiched between Iraq and on the west border, and Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the east, Iran is blessed with the deep waters of the Caspian Sea to the north, and the Persian Gulf down south.
The coast of the Persian Gulf stretches over 2,700 kilometres of continental coastline and covers an expansive 156,000 square kilometres of Iran's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)—an area of the water that can be used for economic activities like fishing and drilling. Since 1988, Iran started reporting shark landings on the coast to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, amongst other fishery statistics. Who would have thought that Iran has a decades-long culture and tradition of shark fishing and is one of the top shark fishing nations in the world? Yet, data on the numbers and types of sharks caught remain scarce.
The Persian Gulf, due to its semi-enclosed nature, is blessed with deep waters as well as extensive reefs. Its connection to the Indian Ocean also makes it rich with migratory and non-migratory sharks alike. It connects with the Arabian Sea through the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman. Its warm and shallow waters hosts several coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds. Several Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar share the coastline of the Persian Gulf. Some shark species found in the Persian Gulf include bigger sharks like the Tiger sharks and Bull sharks - which can grow up to four metres long; and the smaller species such as the spot tail and blacktip sharks.
Shark sightings off the coasts of the Persian Gulf used to be commonplace, but fishermen say that the shark numbers and sizes have definitely been going down over the years.
Just how scary and dangerous are sharks to humans really? One is all too familiar with the iconic and timeless movie of the 70s, Jaws, and the result of its influence on people’s one-sided perception of sharks (one that is more often than not, unkind to sharks).
Sharks have been essentialised by the portrayal of the Great White—are all sharks really just out to attack unsuspecting human beings, as portrayed in Jaws? Peter Benchley, the author of the 1974 novel that the movie originated from, later expressed regret about his work after he learnt about the plight of sharks and the rate they were being killed. He committed his life to ocean conservation thereafter.
It is important to look at the actual history of shark attack statistics in the world to have a better understanding of just how dangerous sharks are. First of all, shark attacks on humans are classified under two categories—provoked and unprovoked. There are only about five known species of sharks that have recorded aggressive behaviour towards humans before in history. Yet, the grand total of human deaths that have resulted from shark attacks in the 84 global unprovoked attacks on humans by sharks in the year 2016 alone, stands at four. It seems that in the 1940s, shark attacks were so common in the Persian Gulf that a website was created to track shark attacks on humans. Since 1921, there has been a total of 27 shark attacks (mostly by Bull sharks). That is 27 shark attacks in 64 years, which does not even average out to one shark attack on humans per year. Moreover, the last known attack in Iran was in 1985—two decades ago.
Despite the Persian Gulf’s richness of shark species variety, sharks are still getting caught in fisheries along the coast, especially by trawling and gillnet by artisanal fishermen. In Iran alone, shark are considered to be non-Halal and are hence not eaten by the locals. Sharks are caught as by-catch and sold as primarily as exports. Not enough data is available on the magnitude of the catches, although up to 37 species of sharks have been recorded to be seen at the landing sites.
In fact, the decline of sharks in the Persian Gulf actually started in the late 1970s, although the numbers of rays, catfish and grunts, mostly bottom dwelling marine life, have interestingly, increased.
As the Asian demand for shark products, especially shark fins, started to increase from the 1980s due to rising affluence, there was no species specific data collected to track changes in shark populations and to implement proper catch management from the catches. The catch and trade of sharks from the Arabian waters remain mostly unregulated and unmonitored. There is little available information about the species caught and its impact on the regions around where they could be found. In 2008, Saudi Arabia claimed to have banned shark fishing but its fins were still showing up in Hong Kong. In 2010, the Maldives banned shark fishing, while Yemen still has no laws protecting sharks to date, and Somalia has laws but no means of enforcement due to lack of data. Currently, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Yemen are two of the top 15 major exporters of shark fin to Hong Kong.
Existing data on shark catches is mostly limited to shark products coming from UAE and Oman. Shark species were identified through biological identification. It showed 45.3 percent of the species traded were thought to be at global risk of extinction.
UAE primarily exports shark fins to Hong Kong, amounting around 500 tons per annum (around 454,000 kilograms) between 1998 and 2000. Yemen is an important transhipment hub where fins are brought to be re-exported. Dried shark fins are also sold at fish markets in UAE, with prices ranging from US$25 per kg for small fins to US$100per kg for guitarfish fins. Hong Kong, China, South Korea and Singapore are countries that are still importing dried shark fins directly from the Middle East.
Only two to three percent of the Middle East’s territorial waters are marine protected areas, as opposed to 16 percent in East Asia and the Pacific. Despite so, Iran already has a ban on shark fishing since 2014, while bans have not come into effect in Southeast Asia as quickly at all. Not a single Southeast Asian country is on the list of countries that have banned shark fishing completely (with the exception of Raja Ampat in Indonesia where shark fishing has been banned since 2010) or enacted similar laws in some way. However, the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar do give protection to the threatened sawfish, and the whale shark is not allowed to be fished in countries like Indonesia and Philippines. All the same, marine protected areas have problems with enforcement of protection, just like shark fishing ban enforcements.
Missing information means increasing need for shark data collection through citizen science and mass involvement.
Even though Iran has officially banned the fishing of sharks in 2014 by Iran’s Department of Environment, enforcement is still the hardest part. With insufficient funds and lack of regulation on the enforcing the ban, shark fishing continues, mostly as bycatch. Without actual species specific data of shark fisheries and their catches in the Middle East, enforcement will remain a challenge. UAE based marine researcher, Rima Jabado, works at getting precious data about sharks and rays in the Middle East through her own efforts on the ground as well as through crowdsourced citizen science data collection obtained from the general public, the Gulf Elasmo Project. Anyone can submit their photos and information taken on dives, landing sites or shark markets, about sharks—dead or alive—to aid in research and data collection for change. This proves that conservation efforts is not just limited to marine scientists or conservationists—the public have a stake in it as well.
There is another silver lining—the rare and threatened adult smoothtooth blacktip sharks (Carcharhinus leiodon) have been sighted in the Persian Gulf throughout the year. According to a 2013 research, four to six pup births are recorded each year in spring and summer. New species of sharks are also being identified by scientists with populations of sharks in the Gulf likely being higher than thought, according to studies. Whether current efforts will have far reaching positive consequences to the health of shark populations in the Arabian waters, or a case of being too little too late, remains an uncertainty.
Kathy used to write marine and environmental stories at Kontinentalist. She was history-trained but does other things now instead, like running an ecotourism shark conservation business, The Dorsal Effect. When free, she enjoys being in the ocean, trying to spot some sharks or just home cuddling with her cavvie, Danea.