altogether as the sea reaches tipping point. ALICIA DE HALDEVANG reports...
EXPERTS have sounded the alarm over a massive decline in the number of sharks populating the waters around Bahrain - saying the Gulf was in danger of becoming a "marine desert".
The UK-based Shark Conservation Society (SCS) has just completed a three-week survey of the country's waters, which found that many larger species of the sea's most famous predator were in danger of disappearing from the region altogether.
Unchecked construction, sedimentation, a lack of fresh water, overfishing and pollution have been cited as the key threats to the Gulf's shark population.
Experts are now warning the Gulf could actually become a "dead" area of water unless urgent legislation is passed in all countries bordering it, with decades of rapid development taking a huge toll on the marine ecosystem.
"The Gulf has always been a tough place to live, but now pollution, construction, increased salinity, habitat depredation and overfishing are all putting pressure on marine wildlife," SCS chairman Richard Peirce told the GDN.
"In terms of sharks there is evidence that this pressure is proving too much for many species.
"Several hundred hours chumming (luring with bait) and fishing has shown an alarming lack of sharks and an almost total absence of mature animals from the large predatory species like the great hammerheads, bull sharks, tigers, pig eyes and black tips.
"Most sharks mature late and produce few young, and the absence of breeding age animals may indicate that Gulf stocks of some species have already collapsed.
"I would say that the Gulf would be near the tipping point of marine health, which is hugely sad as this area has been built on a history of maritime culture, such as dhow building, fishing and seaside developments."
The study on sharks in the Gulf was commissioned by the Bahrain government and was carried out by a 14-member team, including registered volunteers from Holland and the UK, advised by SCS scientific adviser for the Arab region Alec Moore.
They have been scouring the waters around Bahrain for sharks, having conducted similar studies in Qatar and Kuwait.
During the survey they identified 16 species of shark in Bahraini waters - the snaggletooth, milk, sliteye, spottail, blacktip, hooktooth, slender weasel, hardnose, whitecheek, great hammerhead, pigeye, spinner, grey sharpnose, whale shark, Arabian carpet shark and Arabian smoothhound.
The team also identified the giant guitarfish, Halavi's guitarfish and six species of ray, which all belong to the same elasmobranch family of marine life as sharks.
Five of the species recorded in Bahraini waters had never been listed before.
However, rather than celebrate their discovery Mr Peirce said the alarm bells should be ringing - since species could be vanishing from local waters without anyone even realising.
"A sixth shark, the smoothtooth black tip, was a rediscovery as only one specimen had previously been recorded in the Gulf of Aden in the early part of the last century," he added.
"Our work has so far found six species not hitherto known to be present in the Gulf and this should be a wake-up call because had we not done our surveys, some species could have become locally extinct before they were even known to exist."
Mr Peirce said such surveys were vital in getting new laws passed that protect certain species, adding such action had already been taken in Bahrain and Qatar to protect certain species - the most recent being a law prohibiting the fishing of green sawfish, described as critically endangered locally.
"The system in the Gulf is a pretty grim picture of marine life, but as the governments have proved with new legislation, the will to protect species is certainly there," he said.
"My plea would be now to look at all shark species and marine life in the same way and produce sustainable fishing and development plans to ensure the protection of wildlife and prevent the Gulf developing into a marine desert."
He suggested a complete ban on commercial fishing for up to five years so that stocks had time to mature and replenish themselves.
"Fishing as a pleasure activity is sustainable, but commercial fishing through netting, trawling and using traps is hitting the system very hard," explained Mr Peirce.
He revealed that the SCS team found more sharks lying dead on ice blocks in local fish markets rather than in the sea.
"We've found most of our sharks dead in markets and, while on some days numbers have looked healthy if one relates these numbers to fishing effort, the picture in the markets is as grim as that at sea," he added.
"It worked out as less than one shark per boat, so in that respect there are extremely low numbers of sharks in
The team also discovered a change in the food-cycle and ecosystem, with smaller shark species moving up the ranks to replace larger species most threatened by human activity.
"We have seen no mature larger species of breeding ages and their place has been taken by other smaller species which have higher breeding rates," said the expedition leader.
Mr Peirce added that while sharks had a bad reputation as being man-eating killers, the reality was quite the opposite.
"Some marine species like tiger sharks, bull sharks and great hammerheads
have been recorded attacking man, yet the incidence of confirmed attacks on man is very low," he said.
"In 2011 there were 14 fatal shark attacks in the whole world, which was the highest figure recorded in recent years.
"The usual annual average of fatal shark attacks in recent years has been five or six and this figure is contrasted with the tens of millions of sharks being killed to satisfy the demand for fins for soup."
In fact, he said the demand for shark fins for soup meant that sharks were not only endangered in the Gulf, but also around the world.
The soup is a controversial delicacy and campaigners say it is particularly cruel since many sharks are thrown back into the sea after their fins have been removed.
"In Manama's retail fish market, four medium-sized fins sell for BD10 to 12 and a kilogramme of fins from small sharks fetches between 500 fils and BD1," he said.
"These are the prices of extinction."
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