Sunday, October 14, 2012

Shark Conservation in Arabia: first international workshop concludes

Last Sunday I posted some information about a shark conservation conference to be held this past week in Dubai.  The focus of the event was to be on the state of shark populations in Arabian waters, the impact of commercial shark fishing and exporting of shark fins, and the level (or lack of) of regulations and enforcement.

Representatives from several Arab nations were in attendance along with scientists and others from conservation organizations in the region.  As this was the first such gathering - labeled as the Shark Conservation in Arabia Workshop - I did not expect anything earth-shattering regarding the outcome.  Such is the nature of international diplomacy, even when it involves pressing issues such as the possible loss of shark species in and around the Persian Gulf.  Agonizing baby steps.

After listening to the latest scientific data on shark populations - which, unfortunately, is a bit scant - and the reports and opinions from nations as to the amount of illegal shark fishing taking place, and who is doing what regarding the regulation of shark product exporting, a collective "wish list" was proposed which included stricter regulation and enforcement.

As reported in the Gulf News, Ralf Sonntag, director for the German branch of International Fund for Animal Welfare, said there is an enormous collective will throughout the Gulf region to better protect sharks from growing fin harvesting by the fishing industry. “This is a good start,” Sonntag said.  “It’s the start of a dialogue in order to improve the situation. We have some very constructive discussions.”

However, all is not rosy.  There are some serious challenges to be faced regarding the politics of the situation.  The commercial shark fishing industry is a powerful one on several different levels and there is some hair-splitting semantics taking place.  Earlier in the week, the UAE Ministry of the Environment and Water declared that its country was not a major harvester of sharks and but that other nations were entering UAE waters and taking sharks.  Additionally, what laws are in place in the UAE for the protection of sharks are reportedly being routinely ignored.  The lack of enforcement has emboldened fishermen to sell shark fins and carcasses in the open marketplaces in plain sight; nothing "black market" about it. 

The UAE Ministry's comments are troubling because the UAE is the fifth largest exporter of shark fins in the world.  They may wish to deflect criticism by saying they are not a major player in harvesting, but their role as an exporter must not be taken lightly.  To use an analogy, they may say they are not making the drugs, but as a big time dealer they are equally caught up in the supply chain from production to distribution to use.

The influence of those who benefit economically from either fishing or distributing shark products could be felt by comments regarding the lack of scientific data regarding species population levels.  This past Thursday, Gulf News reported that the shark harvest is “commercially important because of its value nowadays mainly due to its fins... in the UAE, fishing of sharks is not a bigger concern than the re-export of shark fins,” said Mohammad Tabish, fisheries specialist for the UAE Ministry of the Environment and Water.  “Due to lack of stock assessment studies and species specific data, it is still premature to say that sharks are overfished. But, yes, fishing does exist.”  

This is the great challenge facing shark advocates now, as they enter more and more into the international and political arena.  Policy decisions are made based on an established robust economic enterprise versus the environment.  Just as we have in the oil/energy industry, the desire to maintain the status quo rather than adopt alternatives is very strong.

For shark conservation to truly succeed, all elements must be addressed: altering market demand, drying up distribution channels, eliminating harvesting, and providing worthwhile alternatives for both commercial and local fishermen.  One organization, Fin4Fins, is focusing its efforts on "offering subsistence shark fishing communities an alternative through a tourist industry based on scuba diving."  This is an approach that is being successfully used with several Pacific island nations, and it needs to be seriously considered for protecting Arabian sharks.  It's not a "silver bullet" solution but is certainly a strategy that must be included with all of the others.

In the end, the Shark Conservation in Arabia workshop was a good start but there are significant challenges to the realization of concrete regulation and enforcement among Arab nations and the implementation of viable alternatives for fishermen.  It would have been better to have seen this occur 10 or 20 years ago.  And to say, "Well, better late than never" is not very consoling.

But let's dig in and get the job done.

Source: Gulf News 10/09, 10/11, 10/12 

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