Saturday, December 17, 2011

Egypt's Endangered Sharks: Arab Spring had unintended consequence for conservation

It's been quite a few years since the week I spent diving in the northern Red Sea. Staying on a live-aboard dive boat, I had the chance to see corals that in many ways have remained unsurpassed to me ever since. The reef fish were quite abundant while, in more open water, most sharks were skittish and kept their distance, except for my first close-up encounter with a large nurse shark that was only interested in resting undisturbed on the sandy bottom.

However, according to the Egypt Independent, the Red Sea's geography that positions it as an almost completely closed body of water (open naturally in the south at the Ba-el-Mandeb Strait and in the north at the man-made Suez Canal) has not isolated it from the same problems that befall sharks throughout the rest of the world's oceans: Egypt's sharks are endangered.

Amr Ali, managing director of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA) , claims that the populations of hammerhead, oceanic whitetip, and other sharks species have declined by as much as 80 percent, and for much the same reason as is found in other oceans.

“Over the years we’ve had many different cases of illegal fishing in the Red Sea,” said Ali. "Five years ago there was a big issue with Chinese poachers; last year it was the Yemenis. It is certainly by far the main reason behind the sharp decline.”

With iconic pyramids and many other ancient locations to visit and artifacts to see, Egypt has a large and lucrative tourism industry to protect. Because of that, the economic value in tourisim dollars for a living shark as opposed to a dead one is not lost on Egyptian officials. But they have been slow to respond to the overfishing or illegal fishing of sharks because they consider what shark fishing brings to lower-income local fisherman and because there has not been a convincing amount of study done in the Red Sea on shark populations.

Reported in the Egypt Independent, "
Relying on the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) is useless, says Ali. 'So our role, if we’re serious about preventing declining populations, has to be a very active one.' In 2006, the HEPCA obtained two decrees from the Red Sea governor banning fishing for and trading sharks. Getting caught with a shark illegally resulted in severe penalties."

Encouraging, but with the coming of the Arab Spring in December of last year, the law enforcement infrastructures for many countries bordering the Red Sea weakened and with that, illegal shark fishing has increased dramatically. Government resources and priorities are being drawn elsewhere and, while the demise of dictatorships and oppressive governments are being welcomed as good news by major developed countries and Arab citizens alike, an unintended consequence has been a loss of environmental protections.

“The [army] coast guards used to fend off poachers which really helped,” Amr Ali observed. “But with them gone, it’s impossible for us or other NGOs to monitor 160km of coast.”

To help make a compelling case for shark protection - strong enough to once again make it a government priority - scientists will need to conduct more research. An overwhelming body of facts combined with a thorough explanation of the consequences of doing nothing (the trophic cascade effect that can occur when top predators like sharks are removed from the ecosystem) is what is needed for government officials to realize the magnitude of the problem and how the short-term gain for local fishermen is far outweighed by the long-term negative impact on the entire Red Sea ocean community and, by extension, on the local fishermen as well.

Mexican researchers faced this same problem in the early 2000's when they sought protections for several species of sharks and rays. The Mexican government wanted data - a lot of it. And so years of tagging and tracking studies were engaged until the evidence was indisputable. When I first met Mauricio Hoyos Ph.D. in 2005, the then graduate student was tagging and tracking great white sharks at Isla Guadalupe for just that purpose. And he continues to tag and monitor white sharks to this day.

In Egypt, HEPCA intends to embark on an extensive tagging study in 2012, along with developing a database of shark fin species and location identification, using DNA from the fins, to compile the data needed to make a case for renewed and more aggressive conservation measures.

Amr Ali said, “Once these studies are done, we’ll hopefully be able to create a proper science for shark conservation in Egypt.”

Let's hope so. I still consider the Red Sea as one of my all-time favorite dive locations even though I was there just the one time - that's how impressed I was with the beauty and biodiversity of this unique body of water. Without sharks, it stands to suffer greatly.

Source: Egypt Independent.

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