The Lebanese Scientist Saving the Sharks of the Middle East
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we need sharks more than they need us.
By Tafline Laylin
I tried luring Dr. Rima Jabado to her natural habitat, outside, near water — but it was a fool’s plan given Abu Dhabi’s soul-sucking summer heat. So we talked sharks in an air-conditioned Starbucks instead. It was here I learned that just about everything the United Arab Emirates knows about the health of their Elasmobranchii populations — a subclass of cartilaginous fish that includes sharks, rays, skates and sawfish — can be traced to this Lebanese scientist’s pioneering research.
Unfortunately, Jabado’s findings bode poorly for these jawed vertebrates: The first regional International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of chondrichthyans (cartilaginous fish) published in August shows that more than 50 percent of sharks, rays and chimaeras in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and northern Arabian Sea are at elevated risk of extinction. The report, to which Jabado was a key contributor, provides the first baseline data for the Arabian Seas Region (bordered by 20 nations, including India and Pakistan), against which all future conservation efforts can now be compared.
Pop culture has not helped the plight of sharks. While movies like Jaws and Open Water cast them as bloodthirsty monsters, Jabado, 38, tries to educate people about sharks’ vital role in ocean ecology. Oceana’s landmark 2008 study, Predators as Prey: Why Healthy Oceans Need Sharks, revealed how apex predators like sharks maintain a crucial balance in marine ecosystems by limiting their prey populations, which do the same for species below them in the food chain, and how emptying oceans of their populations “can have unpredictable and devastating consequences.”
Most of the people I talk to say, ‘There are sharks in the Gulf?’
But helping protect these creatures is impossible without accurate data — which is why it was both daunting and exciting for Jabado to discover that nobody was conducting official shark research in Gulf waters when she traveled to Dubai on holiday in 2008. Sifting through old records drawn up by Danish, Portuguese and Japanese researchers, she saw that none of it was up to date. “I had a blank canvas to work with,” she says.
Around the same time, Jabado says, reports from Hong Kong exposed the UAE as the fourth-largest exporter of shark fins, a multimillion-dollar trade that escalated in the late ’90s to feed demand for shark fin soup in China. In a stroke of synchronicity, United Arab Emirates University had just started its doctoral program, so Jabado submitted a proposal to continue her studies there, looking at shark fisheries in the UAE, and was given a full-ride scholarship. Over two years and interviews with 200 fishermen — “They are our eyes at sea,” she says — Jabado completed the first comprehensive analysis of UAE shark ecology and fisheries.
Mohammad Tabish, a fisheries specialist who met Jabado first as a student and then as a colleague at the Ministry of Environment and Water, applauds her work. “In the UAE, one of the main challenges is not getting regulations issued — we managed to draft one of the first related laws in the region,” he says. Ministerial Decree No. 500 of 2014 was issued to regulate the fishing and trading of sharks protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Jabado also helped implement a shark-fishing ban in the region between February and July. But, she admits, local fishermen are unlikely to release bycatch. “They can make at least $100 from dried fins from one shark,” she explains.
Although efforts to protect endangered shark species are in the early stages, Jabado is generating awareness. Until she came along, even people in the scientific community were unaware of the Gulf’s biodiversity. “Most of the people I talk to say, ‘There are sharks in the Gulf?’” she says, laughing. “They’re scared of going in the water after that.” Jabado, by contrast, has been enamored with sharks since she was a child.
Her family moved to Greece after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. Her mother raised three children while her father worked in the cargo shipping business. Jabado recalls seeing sharks for sale at supermarkets, piquing a lifelong curiosity, but her father discouraged a research career because he didn’t see a future in it. So she focused on conservation policy, studying political science at Concordia University in Montreal, and applied science at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia.
With plans to remain in the UAE for the foreseeable future, Jabado is teaming up with shark experts around the world on education initiatives and training workshops. And, with support from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Middle East and North Africa (for which she consults) and the U.N. Convention on Migratory Species, she co-authored a bilingual identification guide to help customs officials identify and protect endangered species traded across borders.
Jabado’s work is slow and laborious — and she worries time is running out. Dr. Ameer Abdulla, senior adviser on Marine Biodiversity and Conservation Science for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, says it’s already too late for certain sharks that are easily harvested, such as shallow coastal species. In addition, he notes, there are geopolitical challenges in the Gulf region that contribute to a lack of resources for management, instability in governance and poaching. “This all translates to significant impediments to shark conservation and persistence of the populations.”
With so much working against conservation efforts, it was surprising to hear Jabado does not support a total ban on shark fishing — as long as the whole fish gets eaten. “From the regional perspective,” she says, “whether it’s in the UAE, Djibouti, Sudan or Somalia, the fishermen are fishing because they need to eat. We cannot just tell them, ‘Stop eating, stop feeding your family, stop living the life you have to live,’ because someone else has destroyed the environment.”
They’re doing the best they can to cope, she says. Now it’s up to the rest of us to take steps toward a more sustainable way of life.
Correction: This article has been updated to remove a reference to the decline of the scallop fishing industry, which was formerly attributed to the absence of sharks. That finding has been disputed by a new study.
- Tafline Laylin, OZY Author Contact Tafline Laylin