DUBAI // Ten years ago, divers off the UAE coast revelled in regular sightings of many shark species.
But overfishing and a demanding market in Asia for shark fins have put that number in decline, to the point of extinction in many cases.
Conservationists hope they can help to halt that decline with a film festival in Dubai educating people about the important role sharks play.
The idea is in its early stages and organisers are trying to get sponsorship before going to the next level.
Portuguese diver and conservationist Fernando Frias Reis, from the Canary Islands Shark Alliance, has visited the UAE to drum up support for the festival among divers and marine biologists.
“Films can be a powerful educational tool but they can also be damaging, creating the wrong impression of a situation and that’s often the case with sharks in some Hollywood films,” he said.
“As apex predators at the top of the food chain, sharks play a vital role in maintaining a healthy underwater environment.
“It is getting more difficult to dive with sharks, as most species are afraid of humans so they avoid contact.
“We would like to do some filming here of the sharks to spread the word to others living and working in the UAE.”
Losing sharks from the marine environment would put a serious dent in the appeal of the UAE as a top dive destination for tourists, with many divers drawn to it waters to catch a glimpse of rare species such as the majestic whale shark.
Each year, more than 100 million sharks are killed around the world and at least 30 per cent of the 500 species face extinction.
Most sharks grow slowly and mature late sexually so they have fewer offspring, making them vulnerable to overfishing.
Although strict laws are in place in the UAE on shark fishing, some are caught and sold in markets in Oman, where the law is less stringent.
Last month, six species of shark – sandbar, scalloped, hammerhead, spot tail, milk and slit eye – were found for sale in a market near Dibba, on the east coast. One was pregnant.
British diver Ally Landes, an editor at Divers for the Environment, a free quarterly magazine published in the UAE, said education was key to help preserve sharks.
“I’ve been diving for 25 years and could guarantee you would see sharks 12 years ago but now it is incredibly rare,” Ms Landes said. “On the UAE’s east coast you could regularly see black tips, or in Musandam I’ve seen a bull shark. Now all we see is the occasional leopard or whale shark.
“They are being overfished. We try to educate fishermen through the magazine and different campaigns but it is difficult because it is their livelihood. There are laws in place but they are not always adhered to.”
The festival plans to feature new underwater film recorded in the UAE as well as films such as Arabia’s Sharks: A Journey of Discovery, a film by Jonathan Ali Khan that aired on the Discovery Channel this year.
Alianza Tiburines Canarias, another shark conservation group from the Canary Islands, is helping to promote the film festival.
Its director Maria Manuela Domingues said the event would help to get the message across that sharks should not be feared.
“Fisherman around the world can play a huge role in helping sharks to survive,” she said.
“They can help us to monitor the number of sharks they see, share information and also tell others about the risk to their own livelihoods from overfishing sharks.
“Many fisherman are poor, use small boats and are just trying to survive. They need to understand the damage they are doing to future generations of fishermen who may rely on the industry to feed their own families.”