Shark stocks are shrinking in regional waters as the animals are harvested for their fins to supply Far East market demand for soup. Image Credit: Oliver Clarke/Gulf News

Dubai: Seven Arab countries will mark an historic milestone on Monday when they sign an agreement in Dubai to protect migrating sharks in Middle East waters from illegal trade.

The move will create larger protected underwater corridors to protect shrinking shark stocks in regional waters where they are harvested for their fins to supply Far East market demand for a high-end brothy soup.

Monday’s signing will signal the first time Arab countries have joined the Memorandum of Understanding on the Convention of Migratory Sharks, a global measure signed to date by 26 countries and the European Union.

Delegates from UAE, Mauritania, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Jordan, Somalia, Syria and Comoros have confirmed they will be in Dubai next week for the signing.

The gathering will be held in conjunction with a special training workshop for government and conservation officials organised by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in association with the UAE Ministry of Environment and Water.

Under the watch of the UAE environment ministry, shark finning was declared illegal in 2011 in the UAE. The UAE is not a major harvester of local Gulf sharks despite it being the fifth largest exporter of shark fins to Hong Kong, according to the ministry.

At a shark conference in 2012 in Dubai hosted by IFAW, the ministry said most of the 500 metric tonnes of shark fins exported to Hong Kong annually from the UAE comprised of imported fins from other countries in the region. Of the 2,000 metric tonnes of sharks caught each year in UAE waters, only 60 metric tonnes would comprise shark fins.

Peter Pueschel, IFAW’s Director of International Environmental Agreements, told Gulf News on Thursday that renewed regional efforts will go a long way because sharks migrating over large distances will encounter fewer unregulated water areas where fewer or no protection measures are in place.

“To increase the protection of sharks to necessary conservation levels, first and foremost, the over-fishing needs to stop and trade in their body parts needs strict controls and regulations. While some important restrictions and control needs have been identified in policy and legislation, the implementation of those remain a challenge for authorities,” he said on Thursday.

Andrea Pauly, Convention on Migratory Species Secretariat’s Associate Programme Officer, told Gulf News in an email that intervention is needed.

“Sharks in general, and migratory sharks in particular, are in dramatic decline world-wide due to massive over-exploitation. As sharks play a vital ecological role as filter feeders and top predators in the marine environment, they deserve our protection, in particular with view to maintaining healthy oceans and fishing grounds for future generations and for the wellbeing of many local fisheries communities,” she said.

“The MOU is the first global conservation instrument for migratory sharks especially with regard to the high seas beyond national jurisdictions.”

Next week’s wokkshop will welcome front line officials representing marine and fisheries authorities, customs, municipalities, CITES management and scientific authorities and fisherman societies are gathered to take part in the training.

Pueschel said the latest signing will bring more conservation to the Arab region.

“Until recently trade was unregulated and uncontrolled, as most of similar shark fin markets in the world. A few years back we started to inform and cooperated with Arab countries to address the problems through better international policies and national legislation and today we really commend the governments for their successful efforts. Now the authorities need to ensure good compliance with the new rules and regulations, but often lack the necessary tools and knowledge. So it is just the right time in the chain of progress to build the necessary skills and capacity by training officials from all relevant authorities how the new rules can be brought into operation,” he said.