The catch on display at Deira Fish Market. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Dubai The stench wafting in the 42 degrees Celsius heat at Deira Fish Market is enough to make a stray cat retch as pools of blood collect beneath a loading island slathered with hundreds of freshly killed Gulf sharks.

As the sun dips below the Deira Corniche horizon, a ritual rarely witnessed by outsiders plays itself out as dozens of pectoral and caudal fins, hacked from black-tipped sharks, are snapped up by buyers hungry for lucrative trade with dried-seafood brokers in Hong Kong.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the UAE is the fifth largest exporter of shark fins to Hong Kong, where the virtually tasteless marine appendages are a high-end, brothy delicacy in soup served at luxury social gatherings.

The culinary war on global sharks for their fins has decimated shark stocks by up to 90 per cent at inshore reef systems around the globe, say experts, leading to the deaths of more than 70 million sharks every year.

If the trend continues, environmental groups warn that some shark species could be wiped out in only a few years.

“For you, these fins for Dh150 a kilo,” mumbles a ruddy faced man lording over the butchered shark fins at market. “Bigger fins? Bigger is Dh200 or Dh300. Tell me.”

The man boasts he can handle orders of any size but points out that the price remains the same for high-volume fin orders, fresh or dried.

Enter the dark side of the shark fishing industry in the UAE, where Dubai-bought fins are flipped for a much higher price in the Far East, with one large fin fetching up to 1,000 euros (Dh4,689.6). A bowl of shark-fin soup can command up to 80 euros and is sought-after for its cartilaginous texture.

The cultural importance of the dish lies within the ability of hosts of banquets or weddings to show respect to guests through an expensive broth served for centuries by the Chinese elite and now by the country’s growing middle class.

Banned in September 2008 by the UAE Ministry of Environment and Water, shark-finning is the practice of hacking off the fins of live sharks caught at sea and releasing to certain death the predators back into the deep.

Tonight, however, at the fish market the sale of fins is legal because the sharks they once belonged to landed at the market whole and intact. Shark-fishing season is open from May 1 to December 31 in UAE waters.

In only the first month of the season there seems to be no end to the legal shark harvest as scores of refrigerated trucks with Dubai plates deliver their quarry to market.

Smell of money

How one can withstand the overwhelming odour blanketing the fish market? One shark trader overseeing the unloading of his daily catch was glib. “The smell of money is worse,” he said. “Once you get used to the smell of money from a good catch, it’s highly addictive. You can’t stop.”

A final count of his catch yielded 30 black-tipped sharks which fetched almost Dh25,000 in an on-site auction surrounded by middle-men operators.

A quick count up and down the loading island, referred to as the “Gargoor side” at the market, revealed more gory details. One lot contained 22 sharks, another 11 large sharks, while another double row contained 139 sharks of all sizes and ages. Deep into the night, trolleys, tendered by registered fish-market workers, ferried dozens more to waiting traders as reefer trucks rolled into the parking lot

Shark catch studied

Cambridge University PhD candidate Dareen Almojil was knee deep in the blood and guts of the maritime bounty. Wearing plastic gloves, she tagged the sharks as part of her efforts to estimate the local shark population. Almojil also collected blood and tissue samples. The catch of the day rounded up four Gulf varieties of shark for Dareen to study from the black-tipped and spinner to spot tails and bull sharks.

“The sharks here are from Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, with most coming from Abu Dhabi today,” said Almojil, a Kuwait native.

Dareen lauded the UAE government’s initiative to ban finning.

By forcing commercial fishing companies to land whole sharks, fewer sharks are being taken because traditional fishing methods take longer. In contrast, the practice of cutting off fins only and dumping sharks back into the sea is quicker and can cut through shark populations with deadly efficiency.

“They have to land these as whole fish,” she told Gulf News in the thick of the market frenzy. “By taking the whole body, they really limit the catch. We still need new regulations, new size limits.”

One of the upsides of procuring fins from government-regulated shark-fishing facilities is that buyers know the fins were taken legally using government-approved methods. “The problem, otherwise, is that when you buy dried shark fins, you don’t know if the sharks were finned or not,” she said.

According to media reports, there has been a drop, globally, in shark-fin prices by up to 20 per cent since late last year, which some conservation groups attribute to heavy environmental campaigning during the last decade.

“I think it’s more about younger people in China now being more aware of the shark-finning problem,” Dareen said. “Chinese youth are not serving shark-fin soup at their weddings like they used to.”

Several vendors at the 180 separate fish stations at Dubai Fish Market said the prices of sharks in the UAE have declined. A vendor at the market showed Gulf News about a dozen baby sharks for sale, noting that the smallest could be had for Dh25 or Dh50 for a slightly larger one.

Fin demand growing

Keith Wilson, marine programme director of Dubai-based Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG), said prices may have dipped but demand continues to grow as the gap between the rich and poor in China — the mainstay market for shark fins — narrows.

“The market in China is ever increasing because there are now 300 to 400 million middle-class Chinese,” Wilson told Gulf News. “Now they can afford it.”

Some experts peg demand for the fins growing by five per cent annually.

Other new trends in the Far East, he said, such as “pounding up shark cartilage and using it as an anti-cancer medicine”, are also depleting shark populations to the brink of collapse, especially in areas such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.

As inshore shark populations collapse and inch towards imminent extinction, relatively healthy inshore shark populations along Arabian shores face a similar future, he warned, if more measures are not taken to stop the killings.

“At the current rate of capture, I can’t see it being sustainably exploited here,” Wilson said. “It won’t take long to get through these stocks.”

The concern is not only for the 30 or so shark species that call Gulf waters home.

Shark-fin demand has led to a surge in the taking of shark giants such as the six-metre long Great Hammerhead sharks — the largest of their kind — from the relative shallows of Oman.

Wilson pointed out that their larger fins are more highly sought, leading to an influx of the Hammerheads from Oman into the UAE, from where they are shipped to Hong Kong.

“If they’re being caught in Oman, it’s not an offence,” he said. “They come in from Oman, are traded and shipped.”

Only three shark varieties — Great White, Basking and Whale — are not legal to be commercially harvested, in keeping with Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Oman is one of the very few places left on earth where there is a healthy population of Great Hammerheads, Wilson said, a stock that is threatened by over-fishing as females take years to reach maturity and give birth only to a small number of pups every year.

“It can’t take this rate of exploitation,” he added.