It's World Environment Day!

Sharks under threat: Jaws against a toothless law

Sharks are harvested and often caught as bycatch, feeding the demand for fins and meat.   | Photo Credit: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

A whirl of sediment clouds the deep, dark water as the seabed is churned. From the recesses of the ocean emerges a strange, pockmarked creature: a bramble shark. This predator of the seafloor has been pulled up to the surface by a fishing net, where its body, released from gravity, becomes somewhat shapeless. Its skin is dotted with what looks like tooth-like projections. It is a weird shark and lies unsold among a catch of mackerel, a collateral of deep-water bottom trawling.

Standing ankle deep in an unidentifiable, smelly heap of dead marine life in Maharashtra’s Malvan town is hardly what I envisioned when I imagined myself conducting shark research. Yet, here I am, at a ridiculously early time of the morning, delving through an assortment of fish, looking for these beautiful marine creatures.

Shrouded in the morning mist, the makeshift fish market on the Malvan beach is a noisy place as fish auctioneers and buyers call out rates.. Suddenly someone whispers “mushi” in my ear. That is ‘shark’ in the Malvani dialect. I instinctively look towards the beach, at the boat that has just docked on the sand. Four crew jump out with a large endangered scalloped hammerhead shark.

Banned and sold

Her weirdly elongated head looks designed to get entangled in nets. Her beautiful body is battle scarred; she obviously fought valiantly for life; and her swollen belly suggests she was pregnant. There is now a nervous energy at the market — everyone is anxious about the landing of a large shark; no one knows for sure whether it is banned or not. A wide circle forms around the hammerhead shark, which is now for sale. After all, the men who caught the shark had risked their lives at sea, and for that, if nothing else, their catch has to be valued. The auctioneer starts his call.

A hammerhead shark

A hammerhead shark   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Today, India is the second biggest shark harvesting nation in the world, Indonesia being the first according to TRAFFIC international. Between 1961 and 2013, an average of 52,640 tonnes of sharks were caught every year according to the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Chennai.

They are harvested and often caught as bycatch; they feed the international demand for shark fins — the prized base ingredient of shark fin soup in China and Vietnam — and the domestic market for their meat.

Sharks in India are protected under the species-specific Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, which currently identifies four shark species — whale shark (Rhincodon typus), Pondicherry shark (Carcharhinus hemiodon), Ganges shark (Glyphis gangeticus) and speartooth shark (Glyphis glyphis) — whose capture, killing or sale is punishable by law.

But sharks are easily misidentified, and this renders the law toothless: they after all, look similar, have cartiligenous skeletons and big, sharp teeth and tend to be lumped into a single category in many fish markets. My visits to fish landing sites and markets in Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, tell me that sharks — and their popularity — are based on cultural associations. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the milk shark is much sought after in local markets — the belief is that they help in lactation. But I have seen at least eight species being passed off as milk sharks in Chennai, such as the spadenose shark and juvenile graceful and spot-tail sharks. All three species are on the IUCN’s list as ‘near threatened’, but not in Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972.

Legal webs

As for the endangered, pregnant, adult hammerhead, a species that is known to have a long life and relatively few offspring compared to other fish, its capture and auction is completely legal: it may be in the IUCN’s Red List, but this shark is not listed among the species protected by the Wildlife (Protection) Act. And because it was caught and landed whole, the capture of this shark does not fall within the offences listed under India’s shark finning policy.

Sharks under threat: Jaws against a toothless law

With over a hundred species of sharks thought to occur off the Indian coast, many fishers and fish traders appear to use a simple rule of thumb about identifying those that can be legally harvested — landing small sharks, even if they are juveniles of species that grow large, is ‘legally’ allowed, but landing large sharks could get one into trouble. With such a diversity of sharks in our waters, the need for a conservation strategy is urgent. To begin with, we need a fisheries management strategy, developed along with fishing communities, which not only looks to protect sharks, but also all the species that they depend on.

At Malvan I speak to Achrekar, 60, a retired fisherman. He tells me that catching a large shark, like an adult bull shark or tiger shark, used to be an event inhis childhood. He remembers the days before the environment laws — and also before trawlers were introduced in a big way — when fishermen were taken to the deep sea as a rite of passage. “The place was so calm there was not even a breeze. The sea was so blue, I have never seen anything like that since.” The young men proved their skill by catching a large shark using a homemade hand-line, as Achrekar would look on in awe. But now, he adds, with the advent of nylon nets and long lines, a haul of sharks has become all but a matter of course.

The writer studies fisheries and co-founded InSeason Fish, a sustainable seafood programme.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Nov 27, 2021 6:19:04 AM |

Next Story