Forty-five great hammerhead pups, gutted from a 4.5m female, ready to be sold at the Deira Fish Market in Dubai. Greater hammerheads are critically endangered and shark fishing is banned from January to April. Image Credit: Thomas Vignaud

Dubai: Fishermen may have struck gold this week when they landed a great hammerhead shark pregnant with a litter of 45 pups, but the Arabian Gulf's marine ecosystem took a great hit.

The 5-metre-long shark was found at Deira Fish Market by filmmakers recording the decline of sharks in the region despite evidence showing that the Arabian Gulf is a ‘hotspot' for birthing shark.

"We need to raise the flag that this is an important region for sharks. This area is a pupping ground but when a slow-reproducing shark is found at the market with 45 pups something needs to be done for the welfare of the species," said Jonathan Ali Khan, project leader, producer and director of Sharkquest Arabia Musandam Expedition.

"If even half of these shark pups had survived, it might have made a significant contribution to the survival of this species at least in this region," he added.

The shark was landed in Khasab, Oman, and brought to the UAE to be sold for a higher profit, Khan said.

In 2008, the UAE Ministry of Environment and Water issued a decree banning shark finning, and halting shark-hunting from January to the end of April.

Only shark finning at sea is banned in Oman. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the UAE is one of the main Middle East exporters of shark fins to Hong Kong, exporting around 400-500 tonnes per year between 1998 and 2000 and attracting fishermen from the region to trade in shark products.

Shark researcher Thomas Vignaud, working with the Shark Quest project, visited Deira fish market and found the large pregnant female great hammerhead amongst dozens of other large sharks. Interested in collecting samples for genetic research as part of his PhD, Vignaud reached inside to reveal 45 dead, unborn babies almost ready to be born.

"Great hammerheads are of critical importance in this region and they have pretty much disappeared from everywhere else. We need to regulate fishing more as 80 per cent of sharks have disappeared," said Khan, a diver and filmmaker in the UAE for more than 25 years. "We know hammerheads used to aggregate in the Strait of Hormuz but we never see that any more."

Plans to regulate and ban the catching of several species of shark during the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) last year in Qatar was rejected by the international community. Attempts to add the great hammerhead and two other hammerhead species for added protection during the summit in Doha failed.

Sharks are unusually sensitive to fishing because their populations grow so slowly, a consequence of reaching sexual maturity late and producing few young ones. The latest figures from 2003 show that the shark catch went up to 3,060 tonnes a year in the UAE.

Gulf News could not get hold of the Ministry of Environment and Water for a comment.

Federal law: Timely ban on fishing

In 2008 the UAE Ministry of Environment and Water issued a decree banning shark-hunting from January to the end of April. Article 28 and 29 of Federal Law 23 on Exploitation, Protection and Development of the Living Aquatic Resources in UAE waters states that it is ‘impermissible' to catch sea turtles, whales, sea cows and other sea mammals.

Article 29 states that the ministry bans the catching of a certain species of fish for ‘eggs, skin or fins or for any other purposes.'