The Malta Independent 8 December 2021, Wednesday

NGO Pushing for minimum size for regularly caught shark species

Malta Independent Sunday, 2 September 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

Amid concerns over the age, gender and type of shark species caught by fishermen, NGO Sharklab-Malta is pushing for the implementation of a minimum size for regularly caught shark species such as dogfish (mazzola), which could be one of seven different shark species.

In an interview with this newspaper, Greg Nowell, co-founder of global organisation Sharklab and director of Sharklab-Malta, explained: “Eating shark is fine; the problem is that you don’t necessarily know what individual species you’re eating, and because mazzola, for instance, might be one of seven different species, you could be eating a type of shark that is on the brink of extinction.”

Mr Nowell said sharks aren’t the big-mouthed, slashing toothed man-eaters so often portrayed in the media. They are critical, amazing, diverse, spectacular and misunderstood. They need to be appreciated and understood for the roles they play in our waters, and across the globe.

Being the apex predators of the seas, sharks play a vital role at the top of the food chain by maintaining the health of ocean ecosystems. They are highly migratory and are a critical component of the oceans, which produce more oxygen than the rainforests, remove about 48 per cent of the atmosphere’s man-made carbon dioxide, and control earth’s temperature and weather. Destroying shark populations could destroy our oceans and our life support system.

Mr Nowell said that he will soon be meeting the director of the Fisheries Department to discuss, among other things, ways of ensuring that fishermen do not catch juvenile sharks, as this doesn’t give the shark population the opportunity to maintain sustainable numbers, adding that there is also an issue with the high number of pregnant sharks caught by fishermen.

Sharklab-Malta is dedicated to research, education and raising greater awareness on all elasmobranch (sharks, rays, skates, chimaeras and guitar fish) around Malta and throughout the Mediterranean. Sharks are the most targeted of these species and the NGO’s research is currently focused on these animals.

Mr Nowell and Sharklab volunteers visit the fish market four times a week to compile statistical data and collect information on the range of species caught and brought to shore besides doing research all around the island, through snorkelling and dive searches. The NGO also carries out land-based research such as shark and skate egg case searches on beaches.

“We once managed to hatch five sharks in an aquarium from egg cases we were given by a fisherman that were entangled in a rope.

“We had been changing the water (seawater) regularly, and after doing so on one particular occasion, the pups died, meaning the water may have been contaminated,” he said.

The National Statistics Office data is very limited when it comes to a breakdown of the different types of species landed, said Mr Nowell. Having a clear picture of the situation is an important means of identifying the species that require protection.

Only three species are currently protected by Maltese law – the great white shark, the basking shark and the devil ray – while others such as the angel shark are protected on a European-wide level.

He said the majority of sharks are caught unintentionally, as bycatch, but practically everything is sold: “The industry is not very wasteful and is very consumer oriented; although sharks can be released back to the sea, fishermen know that people will still buy certain species, so they keep them, even if they didn’t necessarily intend to catch them.”

Mr Nowell explained that the blue shark – which used to be a common species throughout the Mediterranean and around the Maltese Islands, but whose numbers dropped by more than 90 per cent in the last 10 years – is sometimes sold as aċċjol (amberjack), while the short-fin mako shark (pixxiplamtu) is sometimes sold as swordfish (pixxispad).

“If the steaks are very similar, most people will not realise that they’re buying a type of shark instead of swordfish, for instance,” he said, adding that fishmongers never really deny that they actually sell sharks, but obviously won’t advertise them.

He spoke about the need to have greater regulation on catches, for example by independently protecting certain species and establishing minimum sizes and weights.

As mentioned earlier, Mr Nowell and Sharklab volunteers regularly carry out underwater observation work around the Maltese Islands. Filfla is one of the areas they visit frequently, and the NGO obtained a permit for a 12-month (May 2012 to May 2013) observation study around the small island.

“Filfla is interesting because it is a marine protected area and also because of the stories generated about shark sightings in that area, but we haven’t come across any sharks since the NGO was set up four years ago. There were obviously a number of sightings 50 or 60 years ago, but that has changed, even though people kept repeating the stories that passed from generation to generation.”

Shark and other elasmobranch numbers are on a downward spiral, and have been for the last number of years. This is evident by the reduced numbers caught and brought to the market for sale each year and the significant reduction in the number of sightings by boaters and divers. If change doesn’t happen soon, many species will simply disappear forever.

Further information, including how to become a Sharklab member, can be found on the website www.sharklab-malta.org or on the NGO’s Facebook group.

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