Monday, September 27, 2010

Sharks in the Arabian Gulf: new research to determine population before it's too late

Declining shark populations have been reported in many parts of the world - some reductions reaching as much as 80 to 90 percent compared to just a few decades ago. But there are still some important bodies of water where the status of the shark populations is unclear. One of those bodies is the Arabian Gulf (or Persian Gulf, depending on who you talk to).

But that is about to change.

Marine biologist Rima Jabado, from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) University, has begun a study to determine the health and extant of shark populations in the Gulf. As part of her doctoral thesis, she has been interviewing Arab fishermen (over 125 to date) and their anecdotal information combined with in-the-field study will hopefully paint an accurate picture of what shark species are living in the Gulf and what their true numbers are.

Jabado was pleased to find that the fishermen were sympathetic to the need for shark conservation to maintain a healthy marine ecosystem, thereby helping to provide sustainable levels of commercial fisheries. But, as noted in the Gulf News, she also heard their frustration in how to deal with sharks when caught.

"The majority of the fishermen would want to protect sharks and believe in the protection of fish for a sustainable fishery," said Rima. "But if sharks are caught in a fisherman's net, should they be thrown back? Perhaps they should be brought in? [This subject] causes them to debate. Some complain that sharks just make holes in their nets."

In many publications, including this blog, the impact of declining shark populations on marine ecosystems has often been presented as a looming threat. But scientists and commercial fisherman are beginning to see real, tangible evidence.

For its predominantly international audience, the Gulf News cited several examples ranging from Australian reports of octopus - no longer being preyed upon by sharks - exploding in number and devouring the lobster population; to increased numbers of cownose rays along the U.S. Atlantic coast decimating vast beds of bay scallops (sharks, particularly hammerheads, feed on cownose rays).

Hopefully, Jabado's research will provide UAE government officials with hard evidence from which responsible shark conservation policies and fishing regulations can be derived. While the Arab fisherman expressed an interest in shark conservation to insure the future of their fisheries, the catch numbers have not been so flattering. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, UAE's catch alone of sharks averaged between 1,300 and 1,950 tons annually from 1985 to 2000. While that number remained fairly stable through that period, rather than increasing, it certainly is sufficient to cause harm to shark populations in a relatively closed body of water like the Arabian Gulf.

"The state of sharks in the Arabian Gulf is a blank," said Jabado. "Attention should be given to sharks — they're the apex predator and their demise could lead to the collapse of the marine ecosystem."

Let us hope that the Arab nations that border the Gulf will prove to be more long-term in their thinking when it comes to establishing policy that will preserve both sharks and their commercial fishing interests.

Read entire article in the Gulf News.

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