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Sharks receive Indian Ocean sanctuary in the Maldives

The Maldives has become the second nation to proclaim complete protection for sharks in its territorial waters.

The cabinet “decided to enforce the decision on banning shark hunting in the Maldives beginning from 1 March 2010. It was also decided that the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture would assist shark fishermen to find alternative livelihood,” the Maldives President’s Office declared in a news statement this week.

The decision also bans trade and export of sharks and shark products in the country.

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NGS stock photo of Maldives islands by James L. Stanfield

The Maldives has effectively converted its 35,000-square-mile (90,000-square-kilometer) exclusive economic zone (EEZ) into a sanctuary for sharks, a swath of the Indian Ocean about the size of the U.S. state of Maine.

The world’s first shark sanctuary was declared last year by the tiny island republic of Palau. Located roughly 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean, Palau’s territorial waters span more than 230,000 square miles (600,000 square kilometers)–an area about the size of France.

The Maldives is home to more than 30 shark species, including the scalloped hammerhead, the most prominent shark to be considered for protection at the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), starting today in Doha, Qater. (175 governments weigh stricter controls over wildlife trade)

“The Maldives were one of the first countries to recognize that sharks were a key reason tourists went to dive there,” said Matt Rand, director of Global Shark Conservation for the Pew Environment Group.

The country’s announcement protects the Maldives’ tourism industry–the largest segment of their economy–from the ravages of the shark fin trade, Rand added. “It is a bold and farsighted move on the part of the government of the Maldives.”

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NGS illustration of sharks by Shawn Gould

Shark Tourism

“Shark tourism” is a growing sector in the Maldives and in many other countries, Pew Environment said in a news release. “In 2006, the Australian government’s Reef & Rainforest Research Center conducted a survey of visitors to the Great Barrier Reef and estimated that up to 25 percent (or $1,375) of each visitor’s expenditure was directly attributable to the opportunity to see sharks. More than 40 percent of the tourists said that hammerheads were the top shark that they wanted to see.”

The Maldives beaches and coral atolls account for 28 percent of its GDP, according to Pew Environment. “But fishing is also a growing industry in the country’s EEZ and a direct competitor with ecotourism for resources,” the Washington, D.C.-based policy think tank said in its news statement.

“Thirty percent of shark species are threatened or near-threatened with extinction and up to 73 million sharks are killed every year around the world for the shark fin trade.”

Thirty percent of shark species are threatened or near-threatened with extinction and up to 73 million sharks are killed every year around the world for the shark fin trade, largely for shark fin soup, according to Pew Environment. Two of the CITES shark proposals, for scalloped hammerheads (and four look-alike species) and oceanic whitetips (also found in Maldives waters), will address this threat head-on.

“Countries are beginning to recognize just how important vibrant shark populations are to healthy ocean ecosystems, and to their ecotourism industries,” Rand said . “The Pacific island of Palau, whose pristine marine environment is a favorite of the dive community, created a shark sanctuary in its own waters in September 2009 and has sponsored all four of the CITES proposals to protect sharks. We will see at CITES whether the rest of the world will also step forward and save sharks.”

Maldives created three new marine protected areas, including important feeding grounds for manta rays and whale sharks, in June 2009.

Also see Saving sharks and tuna (Commentary)