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Shark fin - A multi-billion-dollar trade

Oman's fish market may be well stocked, but the industry behind delicacies like shark fin soup is slicing into the very heart of the world's ecosystems.

Last modified: 15 Mar 2010 13:44
It's 3am on the moonlit waters of the Gulf of Oman, a ghostly light silhouetting His Majesty the Sultan's palace on the Muscat shoreline.
We're hunting sharks - buoys bobbing atop hooked lines baited with bloody tuna heads. A long line with eighty hooks is fed out into the black depths.
But this is a shark-hunt with a difference. The Oman Shark Project has been set up by the government under the guidance of Irishman Dr Aaron Henderson in a bid to find out more about the most feared predator of the sea. The team catch a variety of sharks and attach satellite tags so they can be tracked.
"Sharks are under threat like never before thanks to the shark fin trade," Dr Henderson said.
"So we need to find out more about the populations and movements of the different shark species. The problem has reached a critical stage."
As China's economy has grown and people have become richer, the demand for the expensive delicacy shark fin soup, has soared.
Supplying that demand has turned into a multi-billion dollar industry, and the waters of the Arabian Peninsula account for 10 per cent of the world trade.
For centuries every day of every year, as the sun comes up, hundreds of fish markets have set up along the shores of the Gulf and beyond.
The array of fish on offer is staggering - it's hard to believe there's anything left in the sea at all.
Boats filled to the gunnels with gleaming piles of thousands of tuna. There are once majestic sailfish, some two metres long, flopping out of the back of Toyota pickups. Mounds of sardines, snapper and hammour. There are green Omani lobsters ... and there are sharks.
Most caught way out in the deep waters between Oman and Iran. Now reduced to lifeless grey hulks of meat: hammerheads, carpet sharks, lemon sharks. Knives are honed and fins deftly sliced off to be dried and dispatched to the dealers. The problem is the trade is cutting into the very heart of the world's ecosystems.
But for the fishermen the fins provide a lucrative trade. We speak to one Omani who has plied his trade on these waters for decades. He says the fins bring in big profits. He's also heard talk that certain species of shark may be banned at the CITES conference in Doha and believes that would be devastating for the fishing communities.
And many locals say the harvest from the ocean is a gift from God which doesn't need controls. A very different reality may be about to kick in.
Back on the Shark Project boat, lines are hauled in to wholesale disappointment - not a shark in sight. Only a stingray is caught - brought on board to be tagged and released.
Dr Henderson says there was a time when you would see sharks pretty much every trip. Not any more. As time goes on, the sharks are being found further and further out to sea.
"The shark is an apex predator. If you remove it from the ecosystem, well, it's disastrous," said Dr Henderson.
"A similar thing happened in the waters off Jamaica – they were generally over-fished and now you have little life, just empty rocky coves and algae covered pools. The coral is dead. And that could happen everywhere."
Experts say sharks are disappearing around the globe at an alarming rate. Numbers in some species are down 90 per cent. They estimate every year up to 70 million sharks are killed for their fins.
Among the worst affected are hammerhead sharks.
At Seeb market north of Muscat we filmed adult hammerheads and pups dead on the slabs. Sometimes pregnant mothers are caught with 10 or 12 babies inside. If ever there was a way to destroy a species, take out the breeders and the newborn.
Still the trade goes on. We filmed great piles of dried shark fins ready to be sent to the Far East. It's hard to say just how many sharks had been killed in the images we shot, but it must be several thousand.
The Omani government says an international effort is essential to limit catches, but they acknowledge time is on no one's side.
The depressing thing was we hadn't seen anything! Worse was to come in the United Arab Emirates. But more on that tomorrow.