Sharks are one of the most threatened groups of marine fishes today. In India, 152 species of sharks and rays have been recorded, furthermore, there is an addition of new species every year. Today India is the third-largest exporter of sharks in the world and the shark populations continue to dwindle in our waters due to overfishing.Fins from sharks, guitarfish and wedge fish kept for drying for further trade. Photo courtesy: Zoya Tyabji
Studies over the years have indicated that sharks act as “apex predators” in marine ecosystems, i.e., they play an important role in maintaining population dynamics of fish groups. Project Associate of WCS-India’s Marine Conservation Program, Zoya Tyabji, has been working on sharks in the Andaman Islands for the past 4 years. She developed a keen interest in sharks while interacting with the locals of the region, who remarked on the steep declines in shark numbers over half a decade. A visit to a fish-landing site made her aware of the plight of sharks. Following which, she has been recording the species caught at fish-landings, species-specific life history and interacting with stakeholders to gain insights into shark fisheries.
According to Zoya, overfishing has played a major part in the decline of shark populations. A shift in the size of sharks fished has been observed on peninsular India, where large-sized shark species have declined with landings dominated by small-sized species, which indicates over-exploitation. Large-size shark species are mostly slow-growing characterised by late maturation and producing less offsprings, while small-size shark species are mostly fast-growing. Further, the change and loss of species could cause cascading effects that could result in economically and ecologically devastating consequences which we might be unaware of.
Juvenile hammerhead sharks piled at the landing site along with smaller sized shark species. Photo courtesy: Zoya Tyabji
In India, sharks are mostly caught as by catch, but a few shark species are still targeted. While there exist seasonal bans and some which are provided full protection, the fact that we still lack basic information, such as the species found in our waters, their life history characteristics, their stock catches, etc. all of this severely hampers their effective conservation.
The decline of these species cannot just be blamed on overfishing, other determinants have known to be habitat-degradation, resource exploitation, lack of knowledge among other things.
Shark conservation interventions
Ten species of sharks and rays are listed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Another intervention is the seasonal ban around breeding season each year, along the East and West coast of India. “Most of the laws are outdated and requires science-based policy changes” says Zoya.
Conservation interventions for sharks in India can be a lot more complex, as there are people throughout the coast, depending on such species for their livelihood. Getting fishers involved in policy making and management of sharks is important, fishing gear is most often non-selective of the shark species caught.
Other interventions which could go a long way in India are:
Rigorous research on sharks and rays
Science-based policy implementation
Strengthening Marine Protected Areas
Prohibiting the illegal trade of marine products
The marine team truly believes in the importance of including the local stakeholders who depend on these resources for conserving the species. Further, the perception of people from seeing sharks and rays as resources, to cherishing and conserving these species also needs to be addressed. After all, conservation is not just about species conservation, it’s about finding alternatives to addressing trade-offs between sharks and people.
By Anisha Iyer