Page last updated at 20:36 GMT, Monday, 9 March 2009

Maldives moves to protect its sharks

By Gaia Vince

Reef shark (SPL)

Hunting reef sharks is now banned throughout Maldivian waters.

The government decision has made the Indian Ocean archipelago the first nation in the region to outlaw the practice.

Shark numbers have plummeted in the Maldives in recent years because a significant minority of fishermen target sharks for their lucrative fins, which are used in shark-fin soup, a luxury Asian dish.

Once its fins have been cut off, the shark is often returned to the sea where it suffocates over many painful hours.

In 1998, the government imposed a 10-year moratorium on shark fishing within the seven "tourist atolls" because of concerns about the impact the practice was having on the tourism industry - many people are attracted to the Maldives because it offers the opportunity to snorkel and scuba dive with sharks and other marine life.

But there is no reliable way to determine whether a shark fin on the market has been taken from a tourist atoll or from elsewhere in the Maldives. And because the fish migrate between atolls, legal hunting has led to a noticeable decline in shark populations in the reefs surrounding the tourist resorts.

'Safe haven'

The new ban prevents fishermen from hunting reef sharks in all of the Maldives' 26 atolls and for up to 12 nautical miles (22km) off the atoll coasts.

It will be extended in one year's time to include a ban on hunting oceanic sharks such as tiger sharks and whale sharks, Dr Ibrahim Didi, minister for fisheries and agriculture, said.

"The protection measures… should lead to a sharp recovery in shark numbers, providing a boon for both the environment and the tourism industry," Didi said.

"It will pave the way to a complete ban on the export of all shark products."

The move was welcomed by marine conservationists who have long campaigned for better protection for the 37 species of shark that frequent Maldivian waters.

"Eight years ago, you could see 60 or 70 black-tip reef sharks swimming off our jetty whenever you went snorkelling," said Anke Hofmeister, a marine biologist based at the Soneva Fushi resort in Baa Atoll.

"Now you would be lucky to see two.

"It will take a long time for the shark populations to recover and until the Maldives can be considered a safe haven for sharks; but this ban is a very important first step," Hofmeister added.

Financial alternatives

Sharks are top predators and play an important role in maintaining the population balance of the marine ecosystem.

A decline in shark numbers can lead to an increase in fish numbers further down the food chain, which in turn can cause a crash in the population of very small marine life, such as plankton. Without the smallest creatures, the entire system is threatened.

Shark fins (Oceana/LX)
Uncontrolled finning has hit shark populations across the world

In the Maldives, sharks have a particularly valuable role in the tourism industry, which generates some 30% of the country's GDP.

According to surveys, about 30% of tourists visit the Maldives for its underwater marine life, and viewing sharks and manta rays are their top priorities.

Diving with sharks generates $2.3m every year and whale shark excursions are responsible for generating about US$10m annually. However, at least one of the resorts offers shark fishing as a guest activity.

Shark fishermen must be compensated in order for the ban to be workable, experts say. Marie Saleem, a reef ecologist at the Marine Research Centre in Male, who led the campaign for the new ban, surveyed the country's estimated 200 shark fishermen and found that most of them would be willing to give up the practice if they were offered alternative occupations that derive a similar income.

Currently, fishermen earn about $100 per shark fin, which is equivalent to killing one shark. Shark hunting contributes about US$100,000 a year to the Maldives economy.

Harbour concerns

The Ministry of Fisheries says it is working with all stakeholders to find alternative livelihoods for fishermen who derive their income from shark hunting. And the new government is also planning to increase police boat patrols around the country, and educate customs officials to recognise shark products.

Hunting is not the only threat to the pelagic population of the Maldives. Shark conservation groups are concerned about a government plan to develop an international harbour on Maamigili island in Alif Dhaal atoll to allow larger ships entry.

"This is an incredibly important area for whale shark migration and one of the few places in the world where it is possible to see whale sharks all year round," said Adam Harman of the Whale Shark Research organisation, who is carrying out a tagging programme of the little-researched animals.

"Whale sharks and manta rays there are already scarred from boat impacts and the new harbour would be devastating."

According to an official in the President's Office, the harbour upgrade has not been confirmed and will undergo a comprehensive environmental assessment before any building work commences.

"The new President takes very seriously the impact of development on marine life, and will specifically investigate any possible harm to whale sharks in considering further development of the harbour," he said.

The Maldives is unique in that it is the only place in the world where it is possible to see whale sharks year round.

The filter-feeders are the world's biggest fish and are additionally threatened by finning, because their large fins make substantial signboards for fish restaurants as well as for shark-fin soup.



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