Rows of the day’s shark catch at Dubai Fish Market in Deira Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News Archives

Dubai: Top marine scientists from around the world will converge in Dubai next week for the inaugural Shark Conservation in Arabia Workshop.

Organised by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the four-day forum is to be held at City Seasons Suites from October 9-11 in coordination with the Ministry of Environment and Water to find solutions to thinning shark stocks in the Gulf.

Roughly 30 species of shark in the Gulf are facing fishing pressures that could have long-term impacts given that sharks take a long time to reproduce, experts say.

Dr Al Syed Mohammad, Middle East regional director of IFAW, said the UAE’s strict laws allowing fishermen to catch sharks only in the off season when sharks are not producing pups is a good example of protection measures needed to stave off dwindling numbers.

“The cooperation with Ministry of Water and Environment as well as cooperation with other environmental and fisheries authorities in the Arabian peninsula is for sure very important for conservation of sharks in the region,” Mohammad told Gulf News. “Adoption of legislation for news measures for regulating or prohibiting shark catch of endangered species of shark can be made only through the government bodies.”

Other countries should take the UAE’s lead on protective measures, he said. The “UAE’s Ministry of Environment and Water was a leader in adopting shark catch regulation (Ministerial decree No. 542 or 2008). We hope that other countries also adopt regulations to support shark conservation and strengthen these regulations according to the need for shark conservation monitoring of the shark status in Arabian waters.”

Globally, the high demand in the Far East for shark fins for a traditional soup served at high functions has led to over-fishing globally with experts estimating that some shark populations have been decimated by up to 90 per cent on some in-shore reef systems.

The latest estimate is that more than 70 million sharks are hunted down annually.

Dr Ralf Sonntag, IFAW country director for Germany, will deliver a keynote speech on the opening day of the workshop. He said the importance of hosting a shark workshop in the Middle East cannot be stressed enough for the future health of sharks in the Gulf.

“Sharks are an important part of the ecosystem in all Arab seas and in oceans in general. They enrich the nature,” Sonntag told Gulf News. “We want to inform people and especially decision-makers in this region about the role of sharks and their importance in nature. We also want to inform them about the tremendous problems, threats and the alarming rate of disappearance they are facing all over the world and we hope to create the support of the region in favour of sharks in the upcoming CITES conference in Bangkok.”

One of the biggest challenges facing maritime scientists as they try to stem the tide is that sharks reproduce at a very slow rate, he said. “Unlike regular fish, sharks are reproducing very slowly, sometimes only a few pups a year, some only every second year and it takes several years before they even start to reproduce so it is very important to especially protect the younger ones and let them reproduce,” he said.

Historical studies of ecosystems show that when the top predators disappear, it can decimate the entire food chain because the largest predators keep everything in check.

“In general, apex predators are kind of managing the ecosystem from top down and it is known especially in terrestrial ecosystems that the disappearance of apex predators like lions, wolves or bears led to a decrease in the number of species, especially smaller ones because medium-sized predators increased uncontrolled numbers and wiped out smaller species,” said Sonntag.

Sonntag said IFAW is grateful for the Ministry of Environment and Water for its participation in the forum. “It is very important to work with people and governments in order to make a difference. We are very grateful for the support of the ministry,” he said.