Omani fisherman catch the sought-after fish whose fins end up on Asia's tables, where shark fin soup is a delicacy
At the northern tip of Musandam, which faces the Strait of Hormuz, many fishermen jump on their boats at dawn and silently sail off from the isolated village of Kumzar in search of any sharks that remain.
"Shark fishing is an established tradition," says Abdallah Kumzari, 52, who is an imam and a shark trader. At the foot of impressive golden mountains, sunlight is reflected off the oily surface of the sea. "Today, big sharks can sell for as much as 500 rial (US 1,300)," he says.
A blacktip shark is caught (Sebastian Castelier/MEE)
Despite being only the world's 17th-highest exporter of shark fins, Oman is one of the key links in a global trade chain which has put numerous species of sharks in danger of extinction all around the world, experts say.
"Here in Musandam, we have nothing. Look at our monthly salaries," complains Said Sheesa, a former shark fisherman who lives in the Omani coastal city of Dibba. Due to reduced fish stocks, Sheesa gave up fishing to work in tourism instead.
Shark fisherman Mohammad Abu Amir Kumzari, 34, catches a shark off the Omani coast at Kumzar, in Musandam Province (Sebastian Castelier/MEE)
According to a study carried out by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, between 2000 and 2011, Oman has exported $2,438,000 worth of shark fins every year.
But according to Hossein Ali, an expert in marine environment at the ministry of agriculture and fisheries who spoke to MEE by phone, "none of the species in the waters of Oman are threatened".
"If you want to fish for sharks here in Oman, for trade, for example, it is enough to have a licence if you don’t use industrial fishing tools," he adds.
Various breeds of shark are fished off the coast of Oman, including the blacktip, pictured here on the left (Sebastian Castelier/MEE)
But, despite Ali's claims, there are several endangered species in the Omani and Emirati waters, according to Rima Jabado, a Lebanese biologist specialising in the sharks of the Gulf region.
Ali says he was not aware that Oman is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which protects wildlife against over-exploitation and prevents international trade from threatening species, or that it exists at all.
Jabado’s report on the trade in sharks and their products in the United Arab Emirates, which was published in September 2014, found that "45.3 percent of species traded were considered to be at high risk of global extinction based on the IUCN Red List Global Assessments," according to inquiries cited in the report made on shark markets in Dubai in 2014, where most of the sharks fished in Oman are initially exported to.
Sharks waiting to head to the UAE. Dubai has become a regional crossroads in the trade of sharks, according to Rima Jabado, a Lebanese biologist (Sebastian Castelier/MEE)
Three hours away by truck from Musandam Governorate, Dubai is a gateway to the world for the Omani fishermen. Dubai became "during the last 15 years [...] a regional market and a crossroads for the exports of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Middle East, Africa and Europe," the report states.
Most of the sharks caught in the Middle East end up in Hong Kong (Sebastian Castelier/MEE)
But the United Arab Emirates is only an exporting hub towards the "ground zero" of shark fins: Hong Kong. "Yes, most of the fins produced in the Middle East arrive at Hong Kong, especially those from Oman or Yemen," says Gary Stokes, 45, director of the Asia desk at Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a non-profit marine conservation organisation based in Washington.
A few years ago, "a trader admitted to me that it was via the aircraft company Emirates that his shark fins were imported to Hong Kong. I called Emirates with this information to challenge them about their responsibility in this [matter]. They answered that they did not transport sharks fins… But the truth is, they do not know what there really is in the boxes registered as 'seafood'," Stokes added.
In response to the allegations, a spokesperson from Emirates airline told MEE by e-mail that the transportation of all shark fins has been banned on Emirates SkyCargo flights since June 2013.
“Emirates doesn’t transport sharks from Oman and all fish shipments must receive a certificate from Oman’s ministry of fisheries before they are accepted for carriage, so there can be no risk of illegal shipments,” the Emirates spokesperson said. “We work closely with the United for Wildlife Transport Taskforce, and we are committed to preventing the transportation of illegal wildlife and wildlife products.”
Foreign workers, employed to repair fishing nets for Omani fishermen, take a short break on Dibba beach (Sebastian Castelier/MEE)
Alan Chan, information assistant at the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department of Hong Kong, confirmed to MEE that: "In 2015 and 2016, 20 and 26 tonnes of shark fins of CITES-listed species under CITES permits were imported respectively, mainly from Australia and Central America."
In Oman, shark fishing can be a sensitive subject and fishermen remain powerful.
“Any bans or changes in legislation to regulate catches or even gear directly impacts the fishermen and their families, especially in remote coastal areas where fisheries are a source of subsistence," Jabado says. "In the region, fishermen are particularly strong because of the cultural role fisheries play and the fact that government would like to see this sector develop."
Several sources interviewed by MEE, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons and are opposed to the fishing of sharks in Oman, spoke about facing violence and intimidation from the local authorities after attempted enquiries about the trade.
"I am a fisherman. I have a speedboat in the harbour, to fish tuna, king fish, sharks and various other species," says Hossein Ali Muhammad Saadi on the beach at Dibba (Sebastian Castelier/MEE)
Christophe Chellapermal, the French owner of a diving club in Dibba, Oman, believed for a long time that he could convince the Omani authorities and fishermen to move their businesses towards a solution involving tourism, instead of shark fishing. "We went on spots with Steven Surina, a tour guide specialising in providing experiences of diving with sharks, but found nothing.
"There is no longer anything under the water," confirms Abdellah Mohammed Ali al-Dahouri, 70, a descendant of one of the most famous fishing families in the region.
UAE-based fish traders look at the day's catch in Dibba harbour. On this day, about 150 sharks were captured by local fishermen (Sebastian Castelier/MEE)
This dearth of sharks presents difficulties for Musandam, as the income generated by shark fishing is hugely important to the local economy and society. However, as Chellapermal says with a sigh: "A living shark is worth one thousand times more than a dead shark.”
Sharks caught by local fishermen at the port of Dibba waiting to be sold to traders based in the UAE (Sebastian Castelier/MEE)