No thanks to the legacy of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 cult classic, sharks are one of the most misunderstood predators in the animal kingdom. Although frequently cast as man-eating beasts thirsty for blood, in reality sharks face a greater threat from humans. Shark species around the world are hunted for local consumption and trade. The situation is made worse by the inherent vulnerability of sharks to overexploitation due to their life history characteristics: slow growth, late maturation, long gestation periods and small litters. They are also, consequently, slow to recover from depletion.
A quarter of shark and ray species are threatened with extinction and up to 73 million sharks are killed each year. Already under pressure from habitat loss, coastal development, pollution and by-catch, international demand for shark meat and fins (the main ingredient of the highly coveted shark fin soup) continues to drive overexploitation. The Arabian Sea area is no exception and shark catch can be frequently seen in the market place. Few or no regulatory measures currently exist in the region – in Bahrain, for example, only one species of saw shark, known locally as Abu Sayaf, is protected by law. The result is unsustainable fishing practices of sharks (if you’d like to learn more we highly recommend our readers watch “A Short Time Dying”, a little-known documentary about the rather bleak status of sharks in Bahraini water).
The good news is that the conservation movement is not dead in the water (pun intended). All countries in the Arabian Sea area are signatory to at least one of either the Convention of Migratory Species (CMS), the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the Conservation of Migratory Sharks or the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) – all of which award a degree of protection to sharks. Moreover, earlier this month, three species of thresher sharks (all of which have been identified in the neighbouring waters of the Arabian Sea), the silky shark and nine species of ray were awarded greater protection under CITES.
Meanwhile, in the UAE, one initiative stands out as champion of shark conservation across the region: the Gulf Elasmo Project. The project (named after the the scientific term given to the group of cartilaginous fish species including sharks, rays and chimaeras) was born from the PhD thesis of the project’s front-runner, Dr. Rima Jabado. It aims at gaining a better understanding of elasmobranch species, abundances and distribution in the Arabian/Persian Gulf and neighbouring waters. During her initial study Dr. Jabado found at least 29 species of shark exist in the area.
‘Your Eyes on Elasmos’ is a citizen science programme spawned from the parent project that addresses a fundamental issue throughout conservation –a lack of data. Without scientifically sound and accurate data to inform the decision-making process, proper conservation measures cannot be taken. The way the programme works is simple: if you spot a shark either in the water or at landing sites, snap a picture if you can, then head to the website and fill in this form. For the hard-core enthusiast, you can also check out the “Sharks of the Arabian Sea” guide book, which gives a comprehensive list of known shark species in the Arabian Sea area. The data you log will provide valuable data that will feed into other studies, conservation efforts and the decision making process. So far the ‘Your Eyes’ initiative has received reports from the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Iran, Kuwait, Pakistan and India.
bnature is excited to announce the launch of the ‘Your Eyes on Elasmos’ program as Bahrain’s second citizen science program following successful public engagement by the “Log Our Biodiversity” programme which was launched in 2012 by AYCM Bahrain. To learn more, please visit the Citizen Science pages on the bnature website.
*All facts and figures provided by the Gulf Elasmo Project.
 Warning: sightings can be taken from the market place as well but be weary of imports!