The continued demand for them has led to a steep fall in shark landings over the last three decades.
The sky is still a silvery-blue as the sun’s rays penetrate through a low-hanging haze. In the coastal town of Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh, against the backdrop of the shimmering sea, yellow boats bob up and down impatiently as if waiting to be let loose. Behind a line of chemical fertilizer and edible oil industries a narrow lane leads up to the Kumbabhishekam fish landing centre.
The day’s haul
This vast open space with a temple at its edge fills up in minutes when the morning haul is brought in. There are small trucks, big trucks, fisherwomen sitting in neat rows with wicker baskets, and a few hundred people milling around. The crowd of fishermen, traders, and middlemen gets ready for the hard negotiations that begin once the fishermen reveal the day’s haul, with fish in all shapes and sizes, from pomfret to marvellous marlins.
In one corner, in a blue basket, we see spadenose sharks. Listed as “near threatened” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, its population has been declining the world over. A bit further on, we find silky sharks, listed as “vulnerable” on the Red List. This part of coastal Andhra Pradesh is known for landing shark species, big and small.
The fish are spread out on the ground, and fishermen and traders begin hectic discussions: one man mumbles the price, another shouts ho! And it is done; there is no hammer to announce the winner, but the deal is sealed, the money handed over, and the trader prepares to transport the haul. Sometimes a fight breaks out, but there is nothing that cannot be resolved with abuses and some pushing and shoving.
Up ahead in the distance, a large white object shimmers in the morning sun: a pair of sharks are being brought in. Their size attracts everyone’s attention. Both have swollen bellies, indicating they must be pregnant. Again numbers are muttered until a winner is announced. The sharks lie in the sand, their mouths open, their teeth glinting in the sun.
Men arrive to dismantle the bodies, taking care to cut them in a way that the pups are removed intact. Around 10 pups are removed and put in a bucket to be sold separately. Every part of the body is used—the meat, fins, liver, cartilage, skin, and viscera. The waiting scavengers clean up anything left behind: a pack of feral dogs, some pot-bellied pigs, and a murder of raucous crows.
India is the third largest shark-producing nation in the world according to a 2019 report by TRAFFIC, an organisation that monitors wildlife trade for data collection, analysis, and to make trade recommendations.
A policy document prepared by Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute in 2015, “Guidance on National Action Plan for Sharks in India”, notes that there are more than 150 species found in Indian waters. It observes: “While annual shark landings have hovered within the range of 50-70 thousand tonnes over the last 29 years, the share of sharks in total fish landings has declined by more than 64% from 1985 to 2013.” The report says: “Falling shark landings is a matter of concern since it would take a number of years for depleted shark stocks to recover.”
As many as 10 species of sharks and rays are protected under the Wild Life (Protection) Act (WLPA), 1972, with more species added in the amendments to the Act in 2022. Thus, shark fishing per se is not illegal in India, only catching species listed in the Act. Given that these are slow growth species, sustainable harvesting from the ocean is vital to ensure their populations remain stable.
A handful of traders seem to be aware of the names of the species that are banned, but identifying and distinguishing one species from another is a challenge. Even taxonomists need measurements of fins and body to correctly identify a species, not just photographs.
Most of the shark species we find at the landing centre in Kakinada are listed as “near threatened” or “vulnerable to extinction” or “endangered”. And there is a reason for this. Sharks are what biologists define as “K-selected” species, which means they give birth to only a few young after a long gestation. They grow slowly and reach sexual maturity late. This is why harvests of shark and ray species for fisheries can quickly become unsustainable if not regularly monitored.
“Sharks give birth to only a few young after a long gestation, they grow slowly, and reach sexual maturity late. This is why harvests of shark species for fisheries can quickly become unsustainable.”
With the international trade in shark fins banned in 2015, one wonders where these will end up. Divya Karnad, the award-winning marine biologist from Ashoka University, observes: “They could end up with traders from Mangalore [Mangaluru] or Chennai. One cannot say with absolute surety, but if they are exported, they will be exported illegally.”
Karnad is the founder of “Inseason”, a fish programme that promotes sustainable fisheries and aims to reduce bycatch of endangered shark species.
Right next to the sharks, there are other creatures that demand the attention of traders: a pair of spinetail devil rays. With their white expansive wing-like arms spread on either side of their diamond-shaped bodies, these stunning creatures of the Mobulidae family are often found in the subtropical waters of the Indo-Pacific Ocean. They feed by swimming with an open mouth allowing water to flow through a gill-raker apparatus. These gill rakers are in demand in South-East Asia for traditional Chinese medicine. In Kakinada, not just the gill rakers, even the wings are removed and cut into tiny pieces. Some fishermen say the trade in rays has become more lucrative than the shark fin trade.
Karnad says: “Not everyone consumes the meat of the Mobulas; it has a very distinct taste.” Like sharks, rays are slow growth species, with a lifespan of not more than 20 years, with very low reproductive rates, making them vulnerable to overextraction. They tend to give birth to a single pup every two to five years following a nine- to 12-month pregnancy. This explains why these species are in danger of extinction.
It was the award-winning photographer Srikanth Mannepuri’s Instagram photographs of this fish-landing centre that drew this writer to this part of the Andhra coast. Mannepuri may seem a bit of a maverick with his long beard and chappals and camera as he moves around jumping over the dead bodies of sharks and rays and lying down on the bare ground to get that one ingenious shot. But his photographs on social media became a wake-up call to the world of how we were emptying our oceans of sharks. The pictures may have won him accolades, but Mannepuri is clear that he is not a scientist and has no data but wants to use his visual skills to remind the world of just how much we are harvesting from the ocean.
No one seems to have a clear answer on whether sharks are being harvested at sustainable levels, not even biologists who have been studying these species for years.
- Many species of sharks, including endangered ones, are caught and end up at fish landing centres along the coast.
- There is not enough data to say whether sharks are being caught in an unsustainable way but it is likely that this is the case.
- It is time the government stepped in and worked with the fishing community and traders to promote sustainable fishing practices as simply banning the trade in sharks or setting fishing quotas will not work.
Most marine biologists the author interviewed agree that it is probably at unsustainable levels for most species. Karnad says their data from this part of the Andhra coast is being processed, but her hunch is that for many species on the decline the harvesting is completely unsustainable.
Meghana Binraj, one of Karnad’s students, who worked for months at the Kakinada landing centre, agrees: “I cannot share an exact number, but the practice of catching juveniles or pregnant sharks is unsustainable and must be discouraged.” But Binraj is strongly opposed to any intervention that does not include the voice of the fishermen. A blanket ban on the hunting of all sharks and rays is not the answer.
And she may be right. As we click photographs and conduct interviews, the traders and the knife handlers do not want their faces to be seen. They realise that even though what they are doing is legal the photographs might demonise their livelihoods.
Binraj comes out strongly in their support: “As conservation researchers who are we to judge how people consume parts of an animal. It’s like, for instance using... a goat’s head in soup; we don’t pass judgment on that right? Then why judge... anyone consuming... shark meat in South-East Asia? I was in Kakinada during the COVID-19 outbreak, and I have seen the kind of misery they [the fishermen] went through and how they suffered. We can’t romanticise any roles neither can we stigmatise them.”
She adds: “These species have found a market only in the last 20 years. I saw fishermen catch a pregnant manta simply because they caught nothing else that day. It is important to start a dialogue with fishermen on what are juvenile species, that catching them is unsustainable. ...fishermen say [they] can’t control what comes into [their] net. The way forward is to teach them ... sustainable fishing practices.”
The wrong lens
“The solutions lie in enforcing the existing laws,” says Karnad. “There are very clear laws on the size of nets used to catch fish. Perhaps clamping down on the producers of the illegal nets... instead of coming down on the fishermen who procure them could be a way forward.”
Trisha Gupta, who is currently pursuing research at the University of Oxford, argues that there are large gaps between policy and enforcement. And this is due to the lack of data. In a scientific paper, “Shark and ray research in India has low relevance to their conservation”, Gupta and her co-authors argue: “Most of the 10 species protected under the WLPA are very rarely caught in fisheries, and a few of these species do not actually occur in Indian waters.”
After undertaking a thorough research of more than 482 publications, they found that the dominant areas of research when it came to Chondrichthyes (sharks, rays, and chimeras) were single events or observations, and less than 5 per cent of the research focussed on management or policy for their conservation.
The paper says that “most chondrichthyan research in India has been conducted by organisations under the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying of the Government of India, where these species are viewed through a fisheries resource lens”. Hence, “chondrichthyan research tends to be production-oriented rather than conservation-oriented”.
On the basis of her findings, Gupta says that as a way forward, we must focus our attention on species such as the silky sharks, the hammerheads, and the blacktip sharks because they “may seem abundant now but may be gone in the coming years, given the rates of capture”.
Big policy asks that can save sharks
She suggests that fixing quotas as is done in other countries may be a potential management measure. For better enforcement of illegal fishing activities such as LED trawling, the coastal police and agencies such as the Indian Coast Guard could be roped in. Karnad, however, opposes any sort of quotas. She argues that enforcement could be a challenge because the diversity of fish being brought in is so high, with virtually hundreds of species at thousands of landing centres.
There are bigger issues that also need to be addressed. There is the constant tussle for power between small-scale and artisanal fishermen and the big trawlers who pretty much scoop out everything from the ocean in one sweep.
Set this in the larger context of the Andhra Pradesh government’s plans to transform the coastal belt into an industrial corridor, with big pharma companies already being given the green light. The presence of oil, fertilizer, and now pharma companies will increase the pollution in the waters and impact the fisheries.
So at the policy level what needs to be done immediately is for India to clear its National Plan of Action on Sharks, which has been lying with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change since 2015.
Second, besides including species in the WLPA, the government must allow enforcement agencies such as State Forest or Fisheries departments to open a dialogue with fishermen on what is allowed, the right size of nets to use, and perhaps a detailed handbook on sustainable fishing practices translated into local languages along the coastline.
Simply putting a ban on shark fishing will not help. Implementing these few plans could be baby steps towards building a sustainable, blue economy.
Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist, author, and journalist.