Unregulated fishing of critically endangered sharks off India's Gujarat coast is driving them to extinction, warns a researcher. She foresees a spike in the hunting in India with the world's No.1 shark fin and meat supplier, Indonesia, all set to place stringent regulations on its fishing.
"Unregulated shark fishing in India is as much an issue for people as it is for the sharks and the marine ecosystem," Shaili Johri, Postdoctoral Fellow with San Diego State University in California, told IANS.
Sharks, as the top predators, are vital players in the marine ecosystem and their extinction will not only cause a collapse of the shark fishing industry but also all other fishing industries.
India-born Johri, who has interviewed over 25 fishermen and shark traders of Veraval, Gujarat's biggest fishing port, said the shark products are a highly traded commodity and this needed to be curbed, or at least checked.
The value of world trade in shark commodities touches $1 billion per year, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations has said.
India is one of the world's largest suppliers of shark products and an important exporter of shark fins, with little or no market of its own, it said in a 2015 report.
The FAO report says India, which has virtually no domestic market for shark fins but has traditionally been an important supplier to the international market, ranked as the second-largest producer of sharks and the 12th-largest exporter of shark fins by volume between 2000 and 2011.
On an average, it recorded annual shark fin exports of 185 tonnes, worth $6.5 million, during 2000 and 2011. The major proportion of Indian exports, mainly dried fins, is destined for China, Hong Kong and Singapore, where the demand for shark fins and meat is huge. In China, where shark fin soup is a prized delicacy, a set of fins could fetch close to $1,000.
Johri, who was in this Colombian city for the 28th International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB 2017), said the extinction of sharks could mean a loss of livelihood for hundreds of people in India and also for other kinds of fishing.
"Sharks have slow growth and reproduction and recovery of fish stocks is slow. Unregulated fishing can make recovery difficult and thus lead to local as well as global extinctions," Johri added.
According to her, the Indian government should make specific stock assessments of shark species and regulate the fishing of threatened species.
A good precedent for this is the whale shark, one of world's largest and most majestic creatures which has been protected in India with a ban on its fishing since 2004.
Johri, who traces her roots to Gujarat's Ahmedabad town, said India exports 75,000 tonnes of shark products -- 25 per cent of the three million tonnes of the global annual trade.
An estimated 50,000-60,000 members of the Kharva community are involved in shark fishing in Gujarat.
Johri said no studies have been conducted so far either by the Indian government or its institutes regarding the habitat of the sharks, whose fishing has been banned in the US and the Philippines.
"India is a biodiversity hotspot for shark species and is home to many critically endangered species, yet approximately 46 per cent of shark species in India are data deficient. For example, till date there are no definitive studies to indicate which Indian shark species are endemic and/or migratory.
"If a migratory shark species has breeding grounds in Indian waters, implications of Indian shark fishing on such species could be huge and we could be contributing to global shark extinctions," she said.
Indonesia, home to 118 species of sharks, is the top shark-fishing nation in the world and a major exporter of its fins. Johri said since the Indonesian government is beginning to impose regulations to check the overfishing of sharks, demand would certainly spike from India, where there are no regulations to prevent overfishing.
It's high time the Indian government took initiatives to check the overfishing of shark species. Since there are no stringent regulations in place, most of the time even juvenile sharks end their lives in the fishermen's nets, potentially wiping out populations," she added.
Vishal Gulati is a Special Correspondent with New Delhi-headquartered IANS news organisation. He was in Cartagena for the Internews' Earth Journalism Network Biodiversity Fellowship Programme at the International Congress for Conservation Biology. He can be reached at [email protected]
Photo Credit: Peter Barker