[Note: this is the second in a series of commentaries by researchers with WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) during Shark Week documenting challenges and successes in shark and ray conservation today.]
A pelagic longline fishing vessel has just returned from a 15-day fishing trip from the high seas, and is offloading at Junglighat, the major fishing harbor in the Andaman Islands. The shark caught — most probably an oceanic white tip, thresher or silky shark — measures over two meters in length. It is one of many from the boat and it takes more than five fishers to move it to the dock and then onto a truck.
Upon weighing, the shark moves on to the processing unit, after which it will be traded and transported domestically or exported internationally. Simultaneously, a middleman gathers all the small-sized shark species caught as bycatch by other fishing vessels using different small-scale gears — including gillnets, longlines, and hook-and-line rigs. Most of these vessels have returned from a fishing trip after five days.
A mix of shark species make up the pile: from the milk shark, bamboo sharks, and houndsharks, to the juvenile scalloped hammerheads, and juvenile wedgefish — all with differing life history traits. The piles of sharks are sorted and weighed to be bought by traders at auction or sold domestically for local consumption.
While grim, this picture of fishing in India represents an important source of income for fisher communities belonging to the country’s lowest economic classes. In addition to the different gear and species caught, this multidimensional fishery includes different tiers of stakeholders and community members.
Despite thriving for the past 400 million years by adapting to various niches and habitats of the aquatic ecosystems, most medium- to large-sized sharks show conservative life history characteristics that make them particularly vulnerable to fisheries mortality.
The lives of fish and fishers have long been intertwined. Thus, addressing shark and ray fisheries in India requires a multi-pronged approach of safeguarding livelihoods while addressing the decline of shark and ray populations.
India harbors an extensive coastline measuring approximately 7500 kilometers and encompassing varied habitats. There are approximately 4000 coastal fishing villages, with over two million individuals directly engaged in fishing operations. They depend on marine resources for their livelihoods, food security, and source of protein. Within this fishery, more than 200 species of sharks and rays contribute to four to six percent of the total global fishery.
Globally, sharks and rays represent one of the most threatened marine taxa due to overfishing. They have shown evolutionary success and resilience, thriving for the past 400 million years by adapting to various niches and habitats of the aquatic ecosystems.
Nevertheless, most medium- to large-sized sharks show conservative life history characteristics, making them particularly vulnerable to fisheries mortality with lower recovery chance from population declines. Local extinctions of several elasmobranch (cartilaginous fish) species have been documented worldwide.
WCS-India works to address the issues of shark and ray overfishing through science-based management and stakeholder engagement.
India has consecutively been listed amongst the top three shark-fishing nations of the world. Shark fisheries in India peaked in the 1980s, in order to supply the rising demand for fins from southeast Asia. Today, sharks and rays are predominantly taken as bycatch, or as part of unselective mixed species fisheries, after which they are fully utilized following a zero-waste policy.
While shark and ray parts taken from fish landed whole supply an international market, a major driver of the retention of sharks caught in these fisheries is shark meat, which is domestically consumed in India.
Currently, ten species of sharks and rays receive the highest protection under Indian law through The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. This outdated Act, which fails to consider the role of various stakeholders, too often creates conflict rather than providing solutions.
We need more nuanced approaches. Once sharks and rays are caught in non-selective fishing gear, their survival rates can be very low. Poor documentation of landings and confusion over the status of exploited shark and ray stocks further hamper effective management and conservation.
Addressing shark and ray fisheries in India requires a multi-pronged approach of safeguarding livelihoods while addressing the decline of shark and ray populations.
WCS-India, under the mandate of the broader WCS global program, works to address these issues of shark and ray overfishing through science-based management and stakeholder engagement. Specifically, we aim to address gaps in shark and ray populations and their interactions with fisheries through surveys at landing and trading sites, while determining trends and drivers of the fishery through stakeholder interactions.
We will complement this by working with stakeholders and local communities to develop practical on-ground fisheries management, including managing critical habitats, and/or providing alternate livelihood options where feasible. Simultaneously, we aim to regulate the trade of shark and ray products, change consumer behavior for domestic shark and ray consumption, and advocate for improved policy change.
Armed with the knowledge needed to effectively conserve shark and ray populations, we have charted a pathway for India to do its part of conserve these globally threatened species long into the future.
Zoya Tyabji is Project Associate for the Wildlife Conservation Society-India.
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Read the other pieces in this WCS series for Shark Week here: