Monday, May 9, 2011

Sharks of the Arabian Gulf: scientists and governments look to conservation

More and more, research and conservation management of sharks is making its way around the globe. In the Arabian Gulf, both scientists and government interests are looking into the plight of sharks to ensure that these important ocean predators are allowed to flourish.

Studying the Arabian Gulf's whale sharks
A whale shark discovered off of a Qatari oil rig, was tagged with a satellite tag that will provide important information as to it movements in and around the Gulf. Scientists from Dubai tagged the shark and reported it to be a larger specimen (8+ meters) than has normally been seen in the Gulf.

Marine biologist David Robinson, founder of SharkWatch Arabia, is building a database of whale shark sightings and taggings. It will be six months before Robinson will have any data regarding the shark's movements - a satellite tag stores recorded data and then eventually breaks free from the shark where, upon surfacing, it downloads its information via satellite.

As reported in,
"The findings from this study, which started in August 2010, will help to assess whale shark abundance in this region. 'The Sharkwatch Arabia database has so far collected 57 confirmed sightings in just under a year with 25 positive ID patterns collected,' [Robinson] said.

Gulf News previously reported that sightings of newborns were confirmed offshore Pakistan and Oman, which suggests that the Northern Arabian Sea may be home to mature females that are rarely seen at other study sites throughout the world."

What is particularly encouraging with this research is that it is being funded by several Arab nations, including the Qatari Ministry of the Environment and the UAE's Emirates Diving Association and Emirates Natural History Group. Seeing these animals as both local tourism opportunities and important natural resources to maintaining a healthy ecosystem means that international exploitation of the Gulf's whale shark population could be denied any kind of foothold.

Bahrain seeks to protect its sharks
The UK-based Shark Conservation Society (SCS) is working closely with the Bahrain Public Commission for the Protection of Marine Resources, Environment and Wildlife to determine the state of the population of sharks in the Gulf. The two have agreed to a shark survey expedition in Bahrain waters for next year.

In Bahrain waters are primarily white cheek sharks, grey sharks, and milk sharks - all not particularly dangerous sharks to humans, but to local fishermen any shark represents a catch that can bring money on the open market. Overfishing is a major challenge that the Bahrain Commission wants to address.

According to the Commission's director-general, Dr. Jassim Al Qaseer, "Years ago there used to be many sharks in our waters but the number has declined hugely as more fishermen have caught them for food, particularly the medium-sized species. We must protect them from overfishing as many fishermen don't care what kind of shark they catch, as long as they manage to catch something and bring it in to sell."

Also of particular concern is the green sawfish, which is considered critically endangered in Bahrain. Dr. Al Qaseer noted, "These are very rare in Bahrain, partially because people catch them for food, but predominantly because fishermen catch them, cut off their unusual saw-like noses for a souvenir and throw the bodies back into the water."

It is hoped that the Bahrain government will manage commercial fishing through regulations covering the types of fishing equipment - nets and hooks - that can be used, and through stricter enforcement of current and future regulations.

"Fishermen today catch any type of fish so that they have something to bring back to shore, even the smallest of fish which then do not have the chance to develop properly. These actually should be thrown back into the sea," said Dr. Al Qaseer.

"We must restrict the type of fishing equipment used such as trawling lines and nets," he said. "Also the Coastguard must check each fishing boat out at sea to ensure that such fishing gear is not being used and that sharks aren't being caught and left in the bottom of boats to be taken to shore."

"The fishermen as well as the public need to be taught how these marine animals are vital to us humans and the eco-system, as they maintain the quality of fish in the sea."

I heartily second that motion.

Read about whale shark tagging in the Arabian Gulf at
Read about Bahrain's sharks in Gulf Daily News

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