Updated: May 11, 2022
By Emily Kian
Photo: Amie Williams
“I used to fear seeing sharks in the ocean, but now I’m afraid when I don’t see them.”
Over a breakfast of mashed pumpkin and roshi (“barabo mas huni”), my colleague Liv and I listened to Sylvia Earle say something along the lines of this as we tuned into Ocean Geographic’s Facebook live session on the fate of the Maldives shark fishing ban. Her quote resonated with me as I too was once afraid of sharks, but now cherish every moment I’m lucky enough to share with these brawny beauties. Unfortunately, my shark encounters have become few and far between, even as I now live and work in what should be one of the most important shark sanctuaries in the world. Despite being in the Maldives for nearly eight months now, I’ve only come across sharks a handful of times. My experience spotting sharks (or lack thereof) serves as anecdotal evidence to an alarming trend that scientists have warned of for years now: the shark population of the Maldives is in a dangerous decline.
In 2010, shark fishing was officially banned throughout the Maldives after the government became aware of a drop in shark populations and its effects on the tourism industry. As a result of this historic ban, the Maldives is now the only shark sanctuary in the Indian Ocean and one of just seventeen on the planet. Over 30 species of sharks can be found here, 29 of which are globally endangered. Healthy shark populations present a number of benefits to both our planet and the people of the Maldives. By balancing ocean food chains, sharks play an important role in building climate-resiliency and maintaining the health of the Maldives’ vibrant marine ecosystems. They also encourage phytoplankton growth through nutrient circulation, a critical function of a healthy ocean environment. Sharks aren’t just heroes for the sea — the Maldives economy has much to gain from a healthy shark population as well. In 2016, shark diving brought in over $65 million to the Maldives tourism industry, and skipjack fishermen claim that greater shark populations improve their tuna fishing activities. Maldives Resilient Reefs sums it up best: “Sharks are worth more to us all alive 🦈 “!
Despite the vital role that sharks play in both the ecosystems and the economy of the Maldives, last month fisheries minister Zaha Waheed suggested that the government was considering lifting the decade-old ban to allow for shark fishing activities. Her comments, which she has since retracted, were met with immediate backlash from both local and international communities. In response to her comments, Maldives Resilient Reefs initiated a tremendous joint-effort to pressure the government to uphold the shark fishing ban. They launched the #SaveOurSharks alliance, which garnered the support of 200 local and international stakeholders (including conservation organizations like Atoll Marine Centre, diving groups, and resorts/guesthouses). A petition to protect the ban was also created, which currently has over 10,000 signatures. Many conservation organizations and groups connected to diving and tourism took to social media to defend the shark fishing ban, further pressuring the Maldives government to pay heed to the needs of its people and planet.
On April 20th — less than a month after Waheed’s original comments — our collective activism proved successful: the Maldives government announced that they would not be lifting the shark fishing ban. Though we were excited, relieved, and proud to hear this news, we know that our work to #SaveOurSharks is far from over. Through both our conservation projects and outreach efforts, Atoll Marine Centre will continue to work tirelessly and tenaciously to protect the Maldives’ fragile marine environment and the countless species that call it home.