For decades, protecting sharks has been one of the most frustrating challenges facing Egyptian conservationists. Many species, such as hammerheads, oceanic whitetips and whale sharks, are known to have frequented the Red Sea at one point or another. However, while no recent, reliable records indicate which particular species might be in danger, sharks are thought to be under serious threat.
Despite the lack of official population records, it is believed that shark populations have decreased by up to 80 percent since the 1970s, according to press releases from the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA).
Although some experts suggest that external factors such as global warming could be the cause, most agree that the real culprit is illegal fishing.
Sharks may be sold for hefty sums because they can be used in delicacies such as shark fin soup.
“Over the years we’ve had many different cases of illegal fishing in the Red Sea,” says Amr Ali, the managing director at the HEPCA. “Five years ago there was a big issue with Chinese poachers; last year it was the Yemenis. It is certainly by far the main reason behind the sharp decline.”
Additionally, since the January uprising earlier this year, Ali says that illegal fishing has reached chaotic levels as law enforcement has significantly decreased.
Sharks are not only important for attracting tourists, but also because they play a decisive role in maintaining and balancing natural ecosystems.
“We’ve estimated that each medium-to-large size shark brings in approximately US$200,000 each year through tourism,” says marine biologist Mahmoud Hanafy.
“If you compare this to the $150 to $200 that they are sold for on the black market, sometimes for a couple of fins, it’s just horrendous.”
Additionally, removing sharks from the sea would severely disrupt the natural ecosystem. Taking out the top predator from the food chain leads to what is known as “trophic cascade,” Hanafy stresses. In this case, the species whose populations sharks used to police, such as rays and skates, would explode in population, meaning scallops and shellfish would be wiped out. This would cause water quality to deteriorate, and eventually impact coral reefs.
However, the fight against illegal fishing has been a long haul for those involved.
Relying on the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) is useless, says Ali. “So our role, if we’re serious about preventing declining populations, has to be a very active one.”
In 2006, the HEPCA obtained two decrees from the Red Sea governor banning fishing for and trading sharks. Getting caught with a shark illegally resulted in severe penalties.
Also, many campaigns were initiated by the HEPCA to get vendors and restaurants to remove shark items from their menus. These campaigns helped slow down illegal fishing, but since the uprising earlier this year and the ensuing absence of law enforcement, the situation is deteriorating once again.
Ali says that HEPCA has received reports from divers unable to find any sharks.
“The [army] coast guards used to fend off poachers which really helped,” says Ali. “But with them gone, it’s impossible for us or other NGOs to monitor 160km of coast.” The military declined to comment for this article.
On the other hand, the other major issue affecting opportunities for conservation and preservation of Egypt’s sharks is the lack of thorough scientific research.
“There is no formal study on the distribution and behavior of Red Sea sharks that would allow one to even propose methods for conservation and preservation,” says Hanafy.
To address this obstacle, the HEPCA has proposed attaching tracking devices to sharks in January 2012, a step which will enable them to study behavioral and migratory patterns. Additionally, a comprehensive database may also be compiled using shark fins — akin to human fingerprints — to formulate a map of Egypt’s shark population.
“Once these studies are done, we’ll hopefully be able to create a proper science for shark conservation in Egypt,” says Ali.
For now though, the fate of Egypt’s sharks remains uncertain.