Day 98, 17 November 2017 — Shark conservation awareness in the Maldives

It’s been a long time! They always say that time passes by in a really unusual way on the island. It goes slowly, at times, and then all at once. I now understand what they mean. After a long break what with me going back to Singapore and with my family and Theo visiting, it’s been really nice to be back and busy at work.

I’ve spent some time trying to help out with making infographics, and we launched a new one about sharks for the citizen science programs. The idea is simple, and hopefully effective. When divers go out and spot different megafauna at the various dive sites, they would note down key species observed. These species of megafauna include species such as reef manta rays and hawksbill turtles, but also usually includes different species of sharks. The main species of sharks observed within the vicinity include blacktip reef sharks, white tip reef sharks, grey reef sharks, tawny nurse sharks, shovel nose rays (If you consider that a shark), and the zebra shark (Stegostoma fasciatum).

IMG_9022.jpgThe tail of a tawny nurse shark I found sleeping under a rock during one of our local sandbank cleanups

The idea behind these check sheets is to have a basic understanding and long term records of key iconic species within these areas. This is not only important in helping us manage conservation efforts, but also provides us with an idea of where the best places and times to see these animals are.

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Citizen science sheet used by the Banyan Tree Marine Lab (Picture courtesy of Banyan Tree Marine Lab)

One of the most frequent questions asked by guests about the sharks is whether they bite or attack humans…or as a lot of the Chinese guests ask, “鲨鱼会咬人吗?” And the shortest most honest answer I have, is probably “Not unless you give them a very good reason to”. Humans are not part of a shark’s natural diet, especially not the species of sharks I just mentioned above. Then, the next question that the girls shyly ask is, “What if I’m on my period? Won’t the sharks come straight for me because they’re attracted to blood?”. Again, the answer is no.  The only thing that stops me from going into the sea during my period is probably just the crippling pain that comes with cramps. So… being on our period isn’t an excuse for Zim, Danielle, Tania or me to get off work for the entire week.

It’s surprising to me that sharks are so severely misunderstood. It’s also important that divers and snorkelers observe proper etiquette around sharks.

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Here’re a few general guidelines that might seem like common sense to you, but is still not common sense to everyone. (Infographic from Banyan Tree Marine Lab)

Sharks are especially important in the Maldives because of the sheer amount of tourism they bring. Shark diving contributes around USD $38.6 million a year in the Maldives, so that means that a single shark can be worth as much as USD $33’500 per year. That’s a whole lot of money, and a great incentive for them to be well taken care of.

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The Maldives is one of few countries in the world to have a complete ban on shark fishing (Infographic from Banyan Tree Marine Lab)

Most countries that have legislation to protect sharks only protect certain species, for certain periods of the year in certain parts of the country. The Maldives is doing it right…they protect all species. While sharks probably still do accidentally get caught by recreational anglers, they are not allowed to be landed and the locals seem to respect that. However, there are a few loopholes or shortcomings with shark conservation still.

 

While the country does not allow shark fishing, trade in shark products is still legal. In addition, it is also legal to sell shark products provided they were caught before the ban was implemented, or if they were caught overseas and imported to the Maldives. Perhaps this makes it possible for a black market in locally caught sharks to still exist? When I went to Male, almost every single souvenir shop had shark jaws on display. When I asked the shopowners where the sharks came from, their answers varied. Some said that they were imported, others that they were caught “a very long time ago”, and the most unlikely one I’ve heard is “they were all found washed up on the seashore”.

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Very discreetly taken (aka poor quality) photos of shark jaws taken with my phone when I was looking for souvenirs in Male.

This is perhaps one of the ways we need to educate tourists in Male, that they should buy souvenirs home that don’t harm the seas. Lots of people claim to love the sea, but end up buying huge decorative ornaments with corals, large seashells, and shark jaws home…It’s just better to see these things in their natural environment rather than on your shelf I guess.

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More information that is shared with guests during the citizen science dives (Infographic from Banyan Tree Marine Lab)

Today, I joined two guests from Hong Kong for two dives, one at Hulanga Hangu and another at Holholaga, and briefed them about our citizen science program and shark conservation in the Maldives. Both of them were experienced divers and it was so great to feel their enthusiasm about shark conservation, and they diligently filled in their citizen science sheets after both dives!

IMG_0002IMG_0009Pre-dive briefing with two guests from Hong Kong about sharks in the Maldives

Hopefully they pass on the message to their friends and family, and there are more guests who will take part in our citizen science programs in the time to come!

Funnily enough, after all that talk about sharks, we didn’t spot any sharks on that dive. But we did see some of their amazing relatives! 7 huge eagle rays gliding right past us and some pretty large marbled stingrays.

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The black blotched or marbled stingrays (Taeniurops meyeni)

I can’t believe this counts as work…I had so much fun with it! Looking forward to more citizen science dives and snorkels soon!