The Shark Trade of the Arabian Sea: Painful Images

The Shark Trade of the Arabian Sea: Painful Images

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The shark trade is a thriving industry in the Arabian Peninsula. Last week, the European Union voted to tighten shark-fishing regulations. LightBox presents Thomas P. Peshak’s photographs of the industry that has put the region’s shark populations on the precipice of degradation.
Red Sea: a curious silky shark pokes his nose into a protective dome camera.
Red Sea: a curious silky shark pokes his nose into a protective dome camera.

Burly, weathered crewmen emerge from the holds of fishing dhows hoisting hammerhead, silky and thresher sharks onto the decks. Smaller specimens are tossed from boat to boat, while the true giants, like tiger and bull sharks, are manhandled by several men before reaching the dock. Armed with gigantic steel hooks, workers heave each shark across the harbor to a concrete slab, which serves as tonight’s auction block. The sharks are lined up in orderly rows with pectoral fins pointing skyward, reminding me of the regimented pattern of white crosses in a military cemetery. I count 98 sharks on the slab. And this is just one boat’s catch in a single night. After being auctioned off to the highest bidder, the sharks are loaded into freezer trucks. Within minutes, the next boat approaches, disgorging more sharks onto the slab. As darkness falls to dawn, I witness more than 1,000 shark carcasses auctioned in a single night.

Docker extracts toothy hammerhead shark from fishing boats "dou". Although the IUCN (World Conservation Union) relates to the types of sharks, endangered, their fishing in some Arab countries continues.
Docker extracts toothy hammerhead shark from fishing boats “dou”. Although the IUCN (World Conservation Union) relates to the types of sharks, endangered, their fishing in some Arab countries continues.

Shark fin is the prized ingredient of shark fin soup, a luxurious dish sought after in the Far East. As a photographer, I have documented sharks and the shark fin trade for over a decade. However, Arabia was not on my radar as a major shark-fishing region. After scouring obscure fisheries reports, I discovered that the region had only recently become one of the top global suppliers of sharks.

The most prolific catches I saw were made off Oman. Every night, freezer trucks and their finned cargo left Arabian Sea ports and raced across the desert. Their destination was along the Arabian Gulf in the megacity of Dubai where nightly shark fin auctions are held. The city now ranks amongst the top five export hubs for shark fins destined for Hong Kong, the global epicenter of the fin trade.

Workers dragged silky shark to the plate auction in the harbor of Mirbat, Oman.
Workers dragged silky shark to the plate auction in the harbor of Mirbat, Oman.

Diving expeditions along the length and breadth of the Arabian Peninsula reveal evidence that shark fishing is ubiquitous, even in some marine reserves. Ghost gill nets (either lost or discarded) blanket coral reefs and rocky pinnacles. Gill nets are unselective by design; in addition to snaring sharks, they entrap everything from endangered sea turtles to whales. Gill nets are banned in most countries, but use in this region is epidemic and their impacts are blatant. Some fishermen voiced concern to me about the recent, dramatic decline in the number of sharks they catch. With the exception of a few anomalies where sharks thrive, my expeditions echo their fears as underwater shark encounters are few and far between.

Thresher shark and mako sharks are much cheaper than other types, so they are just dumped in a pile. They will be sold at the end of the day at a reduced price.
Thresher shark and mako sharks are much cheaper than other types, so they are just dumped in a pile. They will be sold at the end of the day at a reduced price.

Today, Arabia’s shark populations sit on the precipice of degradation. However, the region is home to some of the most committed marine conservationists. Because of their work, I have hope for the future of Arabia’s sharks. Can Arabia transform their reputation from being a top supplier of shark fins to a leader in global shark conservation? I like to think so.

Specialist butchering carcasses cuts the dorsal fin of a shark in the fish market in Dubai.
Specialist butchering carcasses cuts the dorsal fin of a shark in the fish market in Dubai.
Dorsal fin sharks is cut short chopping blow to the cutting hall on the distant coast Sharqiya in Oman.
Dorsal fin sharks is cut short chopping blow to the cutting hall on the distant coast Sharqiya in Oman.
Dorsal fin sharks is cut short chopping blow to the cutting hall on the distant coast Sharqiya in Oman.
Dorsal fin sharks is cut short chopping blow to the cutting hall on the distant coast Sharqiya in Oman.
Rows of sharks waiting for the auction at the fish market of Dubai.
Rows of sharks waiting for the auction at the fish market of Dubai.
Silky sharks at auction in anticipation of a buyer in the port of the Arabian Sea.
Silky sharks at auction in anticipation of a buyer in the port of the Arabian Sea.
Shark meat is laid out to dry in the hot sun of the desert in Al Khaluf, Oman.
Shark meat is laid out to dry in the hot sun of the desert in Al Khaluf, Oman.
Traders dumped dry shark fins from the bags on the pavement at the fish market of Dubai, to attract buyers.
Traders dumped dry shark fins from the bags on the pavement at the fish market of Dubai, to attract buyers.
Giant hammerhead shark waiting to be sent to Dubai for auction. This species of shark is one of the largest and most expensive of the fins on the market.
Giant hammerhead shark waiting to be sent to Dubai for auction. This species of shark is one of the largest and most expensive of the fins on the market.
Although shark meat is valued less than the fins, meat of some small species of processed and used for food on the spot.
Although shark meat is valued less than the fins, meat of some small species of processed and used for food on the spot.
Processing of sharks after sunset on the edge of the Arabian Sea.
Processing of sharks after sunset on the edge of the Arabian Sea.
Trigger fish tangled in an abandoned gillnet on a coral reef in the marine reserve at Damaniyat islands in Oman. It was in fact doomed, but I cleared it with the help of a diving knife, making the first few shots.
Trigger fish tangled in an abandoned gillnet on a coral reef in the marine reserve at Damaniyat islands in Oman. It was in fact doomed, but I cleared it with the help of a diving knife, making the first few shots.
Dead Bryde's whale, stranded on a remote beach on the Sharqiyah Oman. He choked, caught in gillnet intended for fishing of sharks.
Dead Bryde’s whale, stranded on a remote beach on the Sharqiyah Oman. He choked, caught in gillnet intended for fishing of sharks.
Large silk sharks of Red Sea is extremely arrogant and completely dominate in the water column.
Large silk sharks of Red Sea is extremely arrogant and completely dominate in the water column.

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