In the year 2010, shark fisheries and the sale of any shark products were banned in the Maldives by law. Eleven years since the ban, the local Fishing Industry has been raising concerns on fish that are caught that’s been half-eaten by sharks due to over population of the species. Following these concerns from local fishermen, the Ministry of Fisheries, Marine Resources and Agriculture suggested to have a dialogue with stakeholders to allow shark fisheries. This opinion platform to lift the ban has raised concerns among the country’s tourism industry, more importantly, within the Diving Industry. What is your take on this controversial matter on Shark Fisheries vs The Diving Industry?

PUBLISHED May 09, 2021

Saazu Saeed
Founder of Save Our Waves
Former VP of Divers Association
Both, the fisheries and tourism industries, are important for our country. While the contribution to our GDP is higher from the tourism sector, a very high proportion of the population still earn their income from the fisheries sector. We all understand that sharks are important for our coral reefs to thrive, to supply our fishermen with a healthy fish stock and to reap tourism benefits from our underwater beauty. There are also concerns from some fisher groups that there is high predation, but this has not been researched. This perception that sharks are affecting fisheries has increased over the last few years, fuelled by public statements from influential people calling to lift the shark ban. This is no doubt what has facilitated the black market trade that has been happening right under our eyes at a very large scale. The Ministry’s public statement that they were considering lifting the ban was very worrisome for us all because we have seen how the loss of sharks effect diving in the Maldives. I think the best way to tackle this is through education. There has been very little effort to educate the public or share research findings since the ban in 2010 which has led us to the situation we are in today. State authorities must reassure the public that they will stop the black market trade before it causes further damage and that they will not lift the ban.
The shark population hasn't reached anywhere even close to what I've seen during the early 80's. I read a recent interview of a fisherman who stated that from 10 to 16 tons of tuna caught, only a couple of them were actually snatched by sharks. Does this really mean that we need to eliminate the shark population? No way. What we need to do is to change our ways of "protection", or providing "himaayai". It's like haram or halaal. We need to find a way to make it halaal – meaning without the needless harming of any life or ecosystems. And for that we need more research and open dialogue for a duration of at least five years. During those five years, the Maldives should start initiatives to stop shark trade. Sharks have become an integral part of our identity, essential to our dive industry. Having no sharks around would be like losing a part of our Maldivian identity. I fear that my grandchildren may not be able to ever swim with sharks.
There is definitely not an over population of sharks. The reality is that sharks are an endangered species globally. The biggest problem is that overfishing, globally, has reduced the yield fishermen are able to catch. This, paired with a reduction in demand for fish in Western countries due to environmental concerns, and globally during Covid-19, due to restaurants being closed, has resulted in smaller catches at lower prices per kg. This has nothing to do with sharks eating catches at all. This is a result of fishermen being unhappy due to lower prices and smaller catches. But at the end of the day, tourism directly and indirectly contributes over 90% of the Maldives economy, and allowing shark fishing again would be viewed very negatively, especially to higher yielding western markets. Add to this the reality that if you kill a shark a small group gets a relatively small amount of money once, while if you keep a shark alive it creates infinite revenue as an attraction, as it will breed and producing more sharks that will create recurring revenue forever.
The complaint that sharks are a problem to the tuna fishery industry is a false propaganda spread by a few. However, some influential people are interested in "environment-unfriendly" fishing tactics that would get them huge, but obviously short-term, financial benefits. One of the reasons the dialogue was opened, was because of the push to introduce longline tuna fisheries in the Maldives, which would also lead to the bycatch of many sharks. We have to consider the benefits of a good shark population in our seas and reefs. In places where we dive, the shark population is alarmingly less than we have seen at the start of tourism and diving in the Maldives. Even now there is shark fishery in the Maldives, which is illegal and is affecting the shark population. The law enforcement authorities' failure to tackle this illegal activity and black market trade clearly indicates the "powerfulness" of those involved. Even though the dialogue is open, I trust that the government will not lift the ban. I call upon the authorities to stop illegal shark fisheries and trade in the Maldives.
In my opinion, reopening shark fishing is a huge mistake as it is known that sharks basically prey on sick, weakened, or injured fish fauna, therefore a natural rebalancing of all marine species would fail. This ecological balance can be seen on land as well. For example, since the “wolf”, also a predator, was reintroduced back into Yellowstone National Park in the USA, the entire ecological system has benefited enormously. I do not believe that the problem derives from the depletion of fish fauna and that fishermen are no longer able to fish, but that they are only economic interests. With the authorization of shark fishing, the diving industry would have tragic consequences as has already happened before.