- Globally, entire populations of sharks and their relatives, rays and skates, are being overfished to the brink of extinction. Over 50 percent of sharks and their relatives in the Arabian Sea are threatened, finds a new study.
- Researchers point out that the Arabian Sea region has large coastal communities that depend on seafood for their animal protein intake. Additionally, fisheries are at full capacity while fishing effort is increasing and there is a lack of political will to take actions to remedy the situation.
- Enforcing fishing regulations for sharks is not straightforward, as sharks are usually hauled in as bycatch when fishers are out targeting economically lucrative species.
- Experts recommend interventions at both levels: at the consumer level to decrease demand for shark products and at the level of fishing communities to bring in sustainable fisheries and ecosystem-based management which would conserve all marine species, including sharks.
In the already ancient marine world, sharks and their close relatives, rays and skates, can claim a unique early ancestry. Their first ancestor is estimated to have arrived around 350 million years ago, before our earliest human ancestors, before even most plants had colonised land. But this long evolutionary history offers no protection to this distinctive group of fish, from human beings.
Across the planet, entire populations of sharks and rays are being overfished, in some cases leading them to the brink of extinction. The situation is particularly grim in the Arabian Sea where, according to a new study, over 50 percent of the shark species found in these waters are threatened. And as one of the top shark fishing nations in the world, India is leading the charge.
With a little help from Hollywood, the image of sharks is generally that of a fearsome predator, eating everything in its way. But sharks and their relatives, rays, are a diverse group. They include some of the largest carnivores in the world, like the great white shark that live in cool open waters around the globe and feed on large marine mammals like seals and dolphins. In the coral reefs of the Lakshadweep Islands, diminutive reef sharks hunt small fish in packs. The whale shark, the largest fish species in the world and India’s first to be protected, feeds on plankton.
No matter the shape, size, habit or habitat, humans have found a way to catch most sharks and use every single part of them. Export products include skin as leather for boots and bags and liver for oil. Cartilage, the primary component of sharks’ skeletal system, is powdered and used as medicine. Shark fins are harvested for shark fin soup, a sought after delicacy in southeast Asia and China. Shark meat, both fresh and dried, is consumed locally and in great demand during certain festivals.
In 2017, 25 marine biologists from institutions across the world including India, came together to assess the status of the sharks and rays in the Arabian sea and the adjacent Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Sea of Oman. Coastal communities from 20 countries live and fish by these waters, including hundreds of millions of people from the west coast of India.
Combining data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature and scientific studies and reports of fisheries departments of the countries that shared these waters, the study creates a profile of the types of sharks found in the Arabian Sea, the extent to which they are fished and the state of their population. The results were troubling.
Dr. Rima Jabado, the lead researcher on the study and the regional co-chair for the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, said that the Arabian Sea and adjacent waters had some of the most threatened populations of sharks and rays in the world. Collating population data, threat information and fisheries information from 153 species of sharks, Jabado and her colleagues found that over 50 percent of the species were highly threatened and at risk of extinction.
India second largest shark fishing nation in the world
“The main threats to sharks and rays around the world are primarily fisheries (particularly the fact that most species are caught as bycatch in fisheries targeting other commercially important species) and habitat modifications for coastal development, from pollution and so on,” explained Jabado. Fisheries however, she stressed, was the main threat to sharks at least in the Arabian Sea.
A common way of assessing if a particular species of fish is declining is to head to the harbour when fishers return with their catch. Fisheries researchers then assess how much of any particular species was caught and landed. Looking at this landing data over time gives some insight into how much fish catch has changed.
The threatened species were identified by looking at the data on how many sharks were caught and landed in harbours by fishers and whether their catch reduced. According to a 2015 report by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), India is the second largest shark fishing nation in the world, after Indonesia. Between 1985-2013, India was catching 50,000-70,000 tonnes of sharks annually. This number has remained the same but there had been a 64 percent decline in shark catch in proportion to the rest of the fishery.
What this means is that in the 1980s sharks and rays formed a huge proportion of all fish caught, but by 2013 that proportion fell by 64 percent. So far, no institutions seem to have undertaken a more recent nationwide assessment. The west coast is the leading shark fisher contributing to almost 70 percent of India’s shark fishery.
Collapse is not always so gradual.
Deep sea sharks, living at depths between 200-1000 metres, are sought after for their liver oil in countries like Japan. For 20 years, the island of Maldives was the main supplier, exporting tonnes of sharks such as the gulper sharks. Then in the early 2000s the entire fishery collapsed, with no more deep sea sharks to be found around the Maldives. It was then that K.V. Akhilesh, a scientist at CMFRI and one of the co-authors on this study, noticed that the west coast of India seemed to have stepped up to supply the liver oil market.
Between 2002 and 2008, Akhilesh documented a steady increase in deep sea shark catch. Fishermen would travel the length and breadth of Indian waters in large mechanised boats casting lines and nets bringing in a massive supply of gulper sharks. In 2009, the entire fishery stopped. Catch had declined, the sharks were becoming smaller and other fishing grounds in other parts of Asia were probably discovered, speculated Akhilesh.
Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, researchers Divya Karnad and Mayuresh Gangal reported an 86 percent drop in catches of rays like guitar fish and wedge fishes. These declines seem to be happening despite an increase in fishing effort. Fishers today spend more days out at sea but return with smaller catches.
Such rapid fall in populations are because many of these species such as gulper sharks are slow-growing and take time to become sexually mature. They also don’t reproduce too often. So, even when shark fishing stops as has happened in Maldives, populations don’t recover or take a long time.
Problems with solutions
“The problem in this region,” said Jabado, “is that we have large coastal communities that depend on seafood for their animal protein intake, fisheries that are at capacity but with increasing effort, weak governance and often no political will for governments to take actions to remedy this situation.” While Jabado is talking about the entire Arabian Sea region, this analysis may certainly hold true for India.
“We need to now focus on protecting the species that are most threatened and support management measures to ensure that other species don’t reach this threshold of exploitation,” asserted Jabado.
Out of the approximately 160 species of sharks in Indian waters, 10 are legally protected.
The first shark species (and consequently the first fish species) to ever be protected in India was the whale shark which was placed under the Schedule 1 species list of the Wildlife (Protection) Act in 2001. Nine more species were added to this list, including the Ganges river shark (one of few freshwater and estuarine sharks in the world), the Pondicherry shark which may already be extinct and the giant guitarfish, an exceedingly rare species that is sought after for shark fin soup in Southeast Asia and China.
The problem with these measures is that it ignores how fishing is actually done in India. “Since sharks are part of multi-species fisheries, it is almost impossible to put species-wise restrictions to reduce landings of sharks (or any other species for that matter),” explained marine biologist Divya Karnad, who has been studying how fisher communities manage fisheries in coastal Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.
Shark fishing in India is rarely a targeted activity. Almost all the targeted shark fishing in India is done by one community, from the village of Thoothoor, in the Kanyakumari district. Since the time of artisanal, small boats, shark fishing in India has been incidental. Which sharks and rays are scooped up depends on the location of the fishing expedition, the gear being used that day and the size of the boat.
“The fishermen have repeatedly mentioned that it does not make sense to single out the group – sharks – and ask questions about their status and conservation,” said Karnad, who is not associated with the study. “It only makes sense to talk about the fisheries as a whole.”
Wildlife protection laws for specific shark species can also be difficult to implement because fishermen and law enforcement officers are often not able to identify specific shark species. “Enforcement agencies require adequate resources and training to implement management,” said Peter Kyne, Senior Research Fellow at Charles Darwin University and Red List Authority Coordinator for the IUCN SSG and one of the co-authors of the study.
Even researchers often find it difficult to identify certain species, pointed out K.V. Akhilesh. “Mostly our landing places or harbours are having early landing schedule and it will be mostly busy and crowded. In rush hours only mostly easily, identifiable species are recorded and others will be mostly [sic] put in generic category.”
Species like the whale shark are also protected by international laws like the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) that blocks countries from trading in these species. India has also banned the export of shark fins. Kyne expressed fears that without adequate enforcement the ban on the export on fins would just drive the trade underground.
Akhilesh agreed, pointing out how customs agencies could be fooled by simply not declaring the true nature of products in export containers. “Inspection of all export containers is quite impossible,” he added. “Even after the fin trade ban, few exporters are trying to smuggle out shark fins out of India, in wrong labels and wrong declaration due to high price in east Asian countries.”
However, the ban on shark fin export has been of little importance to Indian fishers who did not see big profits from them. Karnad points out that fishers have alternate markets to sell sharks – for meat and other products. “It is the traders and exporters who are feeling the pinch.”
What about following in Maldives footsteps and banning the entire shark fishery? Karnad and Akhilesh are against this move. Karnad pointed out the futility of such a move since most sharks are caught incidentally. She advocated the need to first prepare fishing communities for any changes in their practices.
“It has to be supplemented with training and technology to actually prevent sharks being trapped in fishing gear, as well as an overall enhancement of the ecosystem to ensure that there are enough other fish that can compensate fishermen for the loss of this part of their livelihood.”
Jabado believes that managing fisheries needs to go hand in hand with the controlling demand for shark products pointing to the importance education and awareness among consumers. “A number of Chinese youths are now choosing to have shark fin soup-free weddings which highlights that some of the campaigns that has been run in China and Hong Kong have been successful,” she said. “But we still have a lot of work to do to be able to understand the dynamic trade in shark products.”
Karnad stressed on shifting focus from just sharks adding, “we should be looking more at ecosystem based management, to try and conserve all marine species including sharks and ensure that they are fished at sustainable levels.”
“This is not to say, however, that sharks only have to be spoken about in conservation terms – because they do form part of the fishing economy.”
Jabado, R. W., Kyne, P. M., Pollom, R. A., Ebert, D. A., Simpfendorfer, C. A., Ralph, G. M., & Al Mamari, T. M. (2018). Troubled waters: Threats and extinction risk of the sharks, rays and chimaeras of the Arabian Sea and adjacent waters. Fish and Fisheries, 19(6), 1043-1062.
Kizhakudan, S. J., Zacharia, P. U., Thomas, S., Vivekanandan, E., & Muktha, M. (2015). Guidance on national plan of action for sharks in India (No. 2, pp. 1-102). Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute.
Karnad, D., Gangal, M., & Karanth, K. K. (2014). Perceptions matter: how fishermen’s perceptions affect trends of sustainability in Indian fisheries. Oryx, 48(2), 218-227.
Akhilesh, K. V., Ganga, U., Pillai, N. G. K., Vivekanandan, E., Bineesh, K. K., Shanis, C. R., & Hashim, M. (2011). Deep-sea fishing for chondrichthyan resources and sustainability concerns—a case study from southwest coast of India.
Banner image: A large bow-mouthed guitar fish landed in the Mangalore port. Photo by Shishir Rao.