There is an otherworldly aspect to the ocean. When a person goes beneath the water, they are occupying a space full of creatures that have adapted to a world humans can only visit. The wonder of the magnificent and diverse wildlife is what brings people back over and over to experience just a little more time in that underwater magic. One of the fish most gravitated towards, whether out of fascination, curiosity or fear, is sharks. Shark diving sends people all over the world to experience mere moments with these fascinating predators. One of the top places to dive with sharks is in the Maldives.
Besides the beautiful reefs and tropical climate, divers flock to the small island country in the middle of the Indian Ocean for the high probability of encountering sharks. In 2016 shark diving alone brought in an estimated $65 million USD into the local economy. The Maldives created a name for themselves in shark diving when in 2010, the country became second in the world to create a shark sanctuary. They turned their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) into a sanctuary for every kind of shark. Within the 90,000 hectare area catching, extracting or killing of sharks is prohibited and shark products are illegal to sell within the country. Now beautiful whale sharks, the rare and critically endangered scalloped hammerheads and over 28 other species of sharks can swim protected within the sanctuary. There are 30 species of shark found here, 29 of which are globally endangered.
International attention was focused on the Maldives earlier this year when the former minister of FIsheries, Marine Resources and Agriculture indicated that her Ministry was considering reopening the shark fishery as it was an important economic resource for the country. The outrage and concern brought together over 200 local and large international organizations to form an alliance to help keep the Maldives a shark sanctuary, the Maldives #SaveOurSharks. This alliance was hugely successful in getting the word out on why it was crucial to keep the shark sanctuary in place. The alliance is invested in a healthy Maldivian shark population. Further individual and other concerned groups started petitions on Avaaz and Change.org calling the government to ‘Protect the Ban’ and keep the Maldives a shark haven. The petitions currently has over 50,000 signatures! On April 20th, 2021 the Maldivian government confirmed it would not be lifting the decade old shark fishing ban, though they are looking into possibly re-stating long-line fishing for bigeye tuna which could result in shark bycatch.
“The Ministry of Fisheries, Marine Resources and Agriculture does not intend to permit a targeted fishery in the Maldives. The Ministry understands the concerned raised by fishers over impacts to their livelihood and welcomes open dialogue with all stakeholders on how to best protect our shared natural resources, whilst maintaining sustainable traditional means of livelihoods.“
The sharks may be safe from legal fishing for now, but data still shows that shark populations have not recovered completely from the heavy fishing done prior to the sanctuary’s creation. Besides the dangers sharks face from fishing, shark nurseries are in danger of disappearing. Mangroves forests are known nurseries for all sorts of reef fish, including sharks such as the blacktip reef shark. In the open ocean the small pups are prey, but within the protection of the roots and murky waters around mangroves, they are the predators. The sharks feed upon small fish and crustaceans until they are big enough to eventually make their way out to sea. Mangrove forests also benefit from housing baby sharks, as their feeding habits keep the herbivore populations from overgrazing on the shoreline ecosystems. It is a delicately balanced system that is at risk of completely falling apart.
It is estimated 50% of the world’s mangrove forests have been lost to harvesting, coastal development, and climate change. MAP was in the Maldives along with scientists from IUCN Mangrove Specialists Group (MSG) in 2019 to assess the options of restoring and conserving the remaining mangroves on an island that was partially cleared for an airport. MAP’s mangrove experts were amazed by the maturity of some of the species of mangroves they saw. Some of their recommendations were to improve the management of the current mangroves, and to not reclaim the wetland as it would have detrimental socio-economic and environmental effects. The report of their assessment can be found here, though none of the recommendations have been put into action yet.
At the same time as mangroves are being cleared for development, the Maldives are in the middle of a mangrove crisis, as there is an unexplainable die-off of mangroves across the north end of the country. This is especially concerning after the discovery of a critically endangered species of mangroves, B.hainesii, was found on one of the islands with the die-off. Most of the islands with the dying mangroves are not protected, nor do they have any management plans in place.
As the fight for shark conservation continues, the fight for mangrove conservation must also be included. To sustain diversity and productivity of reef habitats, mangroves need to be protected to ensure that shark pups and juvenile reef fish have a place to safely grow. Without the mangrove nurseries, there will be little for divers to see when they enter the underwater world.
Cover photo: Laamu Maabaidhoo mangrove, ©Arushadh Ahmed