Freediving at a depth of five to six metres in the Strait of Hormuz, off the northern coast of Oman, it was hard to see anything in the vast, dark waters.
This biodiverse region is home to dolphins, turtles, coral reefs, giant morays and sharks, but that morning, not even the sea floor was visible.
All of a sudden, a blacktip shark appeared. It was hooked to a fishing trap that an Omani fisherman, now standing at the edge of a boat at the water’s surface, had set up the day before.
I swam closer. From above, I started to take photographs – including this one – of the blacktip. It was about one-metre long, and stayed very still, as if dead.
I quickly swam to the surface, took a deep breath and dived again to take more photos from beneath the animal. I took about 50 pictures before the fisherman, a well-built man in his 40s, pulled the shark to the surface, struck it on the head with a wooden stick and brought it aboard.
Swimming back to the boat, I thought of how these pictures captured a little-seen side of the global shark trade – the moment when one of these animals is caught at sea. They also pointed to a relatively unknown source in this industry, the lucrative shark fishing business taking place in the Gulf region. To feed a globalised appetite for shark fins and meat, blacktips are just one of many species being unsustainably fished in the Arabian Gulf.
But I also felt torn. I had felt a sadness to see this shark dying underwater, yet, at the same time, I understood the need for the fisherman to catch sharks to support his family.
Kumzar, a remote fishing village
Underwater photography is a break from the reporting that I do throughout the year on Gulf societies and Asia-Gulf migrations. I started this reporting project because I wanted to understand how globalised markets connected the fishermen of a remote Omani village to wealthy Asian customers more than 5,000km away.
To do this, my colleague Quentin Muller and I travelled to Oman in early December, 2016. We drove along the 200km-long coastal road from Dubai to Musandam, a pristine mountainous peninsula known for its majestic fjords like those carved out by Arctic glaciers.
We then sailed on an Omani fishing boat to Kumzar, in Musandam’s isolated northernmost tip, a coastal village with a population of about 5,000 nestled between steep, rocky mountains. The waters along the coastline are rich in fish, which attract predators. Shark fishing itself became a livelihood for the local community after the 1970s oil boom linked Gulf economies to global trade.
It is not illegal to shark fish in Oman, although sharks must be sold whole. But finning, removing the fins and disposing of the shark body, often in the water, is prohibited. In 2008, the country became a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which states that threatened species such as the great hammerhead shark and the whale shark should be protected from trade activities. The sultanate is working out how best to regulate fisheries as Omani fishermen continue to catch CITES-listed species.
I waited in the village for a few days before a fisherman agreed to take me on his boat. “Shark fishing is an established tradition [in Kumzar],” the fisherman told me. His father also shark-fished.
The fishermen lure the sharks by setting sea traps composed of a rope dozens of metres long and weighted to reach the sea floor. Several hooks with live fish hooked through the cheek are attached to the rope. Between 24 to 48 hours later, the fisherman returns to the spot out at sea to check whether a shark has been snared.
The fisherman who catches the blacktip sells his catch at the local market or to traders in the Omani city of Khasab from where the sharks are exported. Kumzar’s fishermen catch mostly blacktip, whitetip reef, hammerhead and some whale sharks.
A rare catch, a big hammerhead perhaps around five metres long, can fetch $1,300, which goes to the fisherman.
From Khasab, a refrigerated truck takes the haul to the United Arab Emirates, the fisherman told me. Like most of the sharks caught by thousands of fishermen across the region, this blacktip will be processed, dried or frozen and packed in United Arab Emirates-based factories. Between 2000 and 2011, Oman exported $2,438,000 worth of shark fins every year, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The UAE is one of the key logistics hubs supplying the “ground zero” of shark fins – Hong Kong, which in turn feeds Asian markets, predominantly China, but also growing ones like Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.
While artisanal fisheries like in Kumzar account for only a limited number of total catches, industrial and illegal shark fisheries wreak havoc on our oceans and bycatches caused by commercial vessels targeting tuna and swordfish kill millions of sharks every year.
Overfishing for the consumption of fins and meat is causing shark populations to decline globally. Finning is illegal in many countries, yet a 2012 report found that only one-third of 211 reviewed countries and territories have finning regulations.
Extinction threatens more than a quarter of shark species, which are also crucial for the resilience of the ocean ecosystems covering almost three-quarters of our planet. Some species are protected by CITES, but more regulation is needed.
In an increasingly urbanised world disconnected from the natural environment where customers live thousands of kilometres from production sites, we collectively struggle to fathom the long-term consequences of overfishing.
Nor is this way of life sustainable for Oman’s shark fishermen. Some days after going out on the boat, people in Musandam told me why their family members stopped fishing. There was nothing left under water, they said. The top predators were disappearing.