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13th September 1998

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Keeping human sharks at bay

Although there are international moves to make sharks a protected species, conservationists here believe it will never work out in Sri Lanka

By Feizal Samath

Sri Lanka may join a growing international move to include sharks on a list of pro tected fish species that are becoming extinct but would find it harder to prevent a lucrative trade in shark fishing.

The island's annual shark production of 8,000 to 9,000 tonnes is just about six percent of its total fish output.

But in terms of the annual shark catch of 11,000 to 13,000 tonnes in the entire Bay of Bengal region, Sri Lanka makes up for more than half that total.

"We are the biggest producers of shark in the Bay of Bengal and probably in Asia," says Devapriya Amarasuriya, a research officer at Sri Lanka's state-run National Aquatic and Research Agency (NARA).

Largely as a result of the relentless slaughter, the populations of some shark species has plummeted by an estimated 80% over the past decade. At the current rate of exploitation, researchers predict that " some species will reach ecological extinction within 10 years".

While the United Nations marks 1998 as the Year of the Ocean, international efforts are now combining to protect the shark and put it on a list of endangered species.

At a meeting of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) in Zimbabwe last year, it was suggested that there should be proper management of shark fishing to ensure international trade is not detrimental to the shark population.

The issue is of particular relevance to Sri Lanka where shark is a popular dish, an important source of fish protein as well as considered useful for other traditional reasons.

Mr. Amarasuriya, probably the only Sri Lankan conservationist involved in long-term research on sharks, says most of the sharks caught in Sri Lankan waters are baby sharks - posing a threat to the reproduction of this fish variety.

He said that growing calls for proper shark fishery management arises from the fact that sharks don't reproduce as much as other fish varieties.

Traditional food fish like cod and tuna grow quickly and lay millions of eggs at a time. Sharks, by contrast, can take two decades to reach sexual maturity, have a long gestation period and bear only a few young at a time. Killing a relatively small number of females can dramatically limit the reproductive potential of an entire species.

Sri Lanka has about 46 varieties of shark out of a total of over 350 different shark species in the world but there are no figures about the shark population in local waters.

Sharks normally live in all the major habitats of the ocean, such as coastal waters, offshore, coral reef, rocks, sea bottom, sea grass beds etc. Most of the sharks caught by the fisheries are pelagic sharks, which live in the coastal and offshore waters. Over 75% of the total shark catch of the country is represented by the species called "Silky shark".

Shark consumption is popular in Sri Lanka unlike the rest of the Bay of Bengal countries where the smell of urine in the flesh puts off many consumers. Sharks, unlike other creatures, retain their urine in the tissues, blood and muscles to maintain osmotic pressure.

Shark flesh is also in demand here due to a belief that it helps to generate extra blood cells in the human body, helps pregnant and feeding mothers and generally improves one's health. Dried shark fish is a delicacy.

For Sri Lankan fishermen, sharks are a more profitable catch than tuna because their meat and fins are in good demand - with each fully grown large variety of shark fetching around Rs. 45,000 (about 700 US dollars).

Shark fin soup is an expensive delicacy in Japanese restaurants, fetching up to 50 US dollars per bowl and the export of shark fins from Sri Lanka to Japan, Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan among other countries is a profitable venture.

Apart from its taste and protein content, shark fin soup is also considered an aphrodisiac and generally thought to improve one's sexual prowess.

Mr. Amarasuriya said in the late sixties, sharks were considered predators of the hooked tuna fish and an agent that can reduce the income of fishermen. Therefore the innovation of the existing longline gear came into being in order to increase efficiency of tuna fishing and reduce the shark catch.

During this period, hooked sharks were discarded at sea and, at a later stage, the liver and fins taken and the carcasses discarded. But in the past two decades, the situation has changed and sharks have become a target variety because of the demand, Mr. Amarasuriya said.

While Sri Lanka is most likely to follow the recommendations of CITES, when it is promulgated, implementation would be the difficult part.

According to other conservationists, bans in Sri Lanka are ineffective if a particular section of the population is involved in that activity as they generally tend to put pressure on local politicians to resist the move saying it would affect incomes and survival.

"Bans in the past have proved ineffective because politicians, in an attempt to protect their vote bank, resist or restrain such attempts," one conservationist noted.

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