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Sunday, 10 February, 2002, 12:37 GMT
Red Sea shark slaughter
Dead shark on ocean floor
Evidence of illegal fishing in protected waters
By John McIntyre on the Red Sea coast

Sharks have long been demonised. Many people regard them as malicious man-eaters and believe the best shark is a dead shark.

So why would the death of large, solitary animal warrant cause for concern?

Simple. The mako shark pictured above was the victim of illegal fishing in one of the most important coral seas in the world.

This is a rare image which suggests that shark-finning may have reached the normally heavily protected waters of the Egyptian Red Sea.

Coral of St John's Reef
Fishing on St John's Reef is illegal

It is widely known that the cruel practice of shark-finning - in which the fins are sliced from live animals - goes on in many parts of the world.

But in the Red Sea, such a spectacle has set alarm bells ringing among top wildlife conservation groups - notably the British-based Shark Trust and the Marine Conservation Society.

In the space of a few decades, these waters have spawned a multi-million dollar diving industry, which relies heavily on the health of the reefs and abundance of tropical marine life.

The sharks are the superstars of the ocean. Each live animal can be worth as much as $10,000 to the tourist trade because of the visitors they attract.

Perfect pups

During a recent diving trip to the southern Egyptian Red Sea, we found stark evidence of illegal fishing next to one of the world's most precious coral systems: St John's Reef, a site where the legendary Jacques Cousteau made some of his early explorations of the Red Sea.

Buoys baited with baby sharks were stretched out adjacent to the reef itself. On one of the hooks was a giant mako shark, a warm-blooded species which is one of the fastest predators in the sea.

Attempts to save this large female - just under three metres in length - failed.

The fishermen made good their escape when they spotted they were being filmed. As the shark lay dead on the seafloor, it was clear that she was heavily pregnant.

Fishing vessel pulling away
The fishermen fled when they saw the cameras
So, after a meeting with the other divers and the Egyptian boat owner, it was decided to cut her open, to see if there was any chance whatsoever of saving her young.

Inside there were 10 almost perfectly formed pups. They were perhaps a matter of weeks, even days from birth.

So, this incident represented the demise of not one but 11 sharks. Since the gestation period for sharks is lengthy, the death of a single female shark carrying young can have a considerable impact on the food chain.

Egyptians who have come to rely on the tourist trade, which is having a difficult time of it post-11 September, are sufficiently concerned to demand action from the authorities.

Photographs of the fishermen caught illegally fishing on this occasion have been given to the coastguard and the environmental protection agency.

Limited resources

Tough action is being promised, though it is conceded that it is impossible to police the vast areas of the Red Sea without more resources.

Clive James of the Shark Trust says: "This incident highlights again the urgent need for nations to implement the International Plan of Action for Sharks."

He points out that scuba diving with sharks has a great economic benefit to many countries in the Red Sea region.

"As a matter of urgency, we urge Egypt and all countries bordering the Red Sea to ban shark finning," he said.

A spokesman for the Marine Conservation Society said sharks are more easily lured by the type of baits used, worsening their mortality rate.

 John McIntyre holding dead shark pup
Ten unborn shark pups died with their mother
But with shark fins fetching hundreds, even thousands of dollars to feed a lucrative market for shark-fin soup in the Far East, it may be impossible to stop finning completely.

Conservation groups say punishing the fishermen does not tackle the fundamental problem of the international trafficking of exotic animals - or their parts.

That, they say, requires the co-operation of a wide range of interested parties - especially the governments of countries where protection is most needed.

To this end, the United Nations Environment Programme is fighting to involve the tourist and fishing industries around the world in a concerted campaign to protect coral reefs.

It aims to raise $160m to pay for a permanent coral reef fund, which in turn might just help the creature whose reputation as a killing machine has made it difficult to win friends.

See also:

06 Sep 01 | Americas
Shark attack factfile
30 Oct 01 | England
Sharks die in aquarium
03 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Sharks to be shot on sight
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