Conservationists and community members of Ukulhas in the northern Alif Alif Atoll were incensed Tuesday when a fishing net with over 20 dead sharks caught in it, was discovered in the island’s lagoon.
Photographs depicting the net and sharks, which are protected under Maldivian law, went viral on social media, sparking outrage amongst environmentalists and the public. Some of the pictures showed the sharks laid out in front of the island’s council office.
According to credible sources, the fishing net was laid Monday evening but was left overnight in the lagoon. It was discovered, with 27 sharks caught in it, early the next day.
A resident of Ukulhas told Mihaaru that once the net was spotted, some people swam out to remove it, but sharks were already dead. Some of the freed dead sharks were hauled on to the beach before the resident himself swum out to bring the net ashore.
“I even called the police to get the net out, but they didn’t know what to do,” he said, narrating that several residents had then taken the net and sharks to the council office. However, the sharks were eventually dumped back into the sea.
He added that several tourists had also been on the scene and witnessed the whole incident.
‘A deliberate attack on tourism’
A leading businessman of Ukulhas claimed that the fishing net had been left in the lagoon deliberately by certain individuals in the island, in an attempt to sabotage the guesthouse tourism in Ukulhas; an allegation backed by the resident that spoke to Mihaaru.
“The people who laid the fishing net left it overnight deliberately,” said the resident. “They’ve been in this business long enough to know that several species of sharks frequent that area, and that they would get tangled in it, if the net were left until morning.”
The two also revealed that there had been past incidents in Ukulhas, where the people involved had threatened injury to local tourism.
“There were incidents like deliberate attacks on turtles in the lagoon,” said the businessman. “One of the key assets of Ukulhas is its manta ray population, and they threatened to harm manta rays … as well as to deface the beach with crude oil … Sometimes people also illegally catch and eat turtles.”
He went on to list that the alleged culprits had also vandalized the huts and lounge chairs on the stretch of beach allocated for tourists.
“But [the net to catch sharks] is the worst thing that’s happened yet,” he said as he harshly condemned the act. “In addition to harming marine life, it has put the public interests and guesthouse industry of Ukulhas in a very bad place.”
Repercussions on tourism; authorities complacent
The businessman, a prominent stakeholder in the Ukulhas guesthouse industry, criticized the island council and other authorities for the lack of action despite the negative impacts on local tourism, one that relies heavily on Ukulhas' environment-friendly image.
“Tourists see these things happening,” he said, revealing that there had been instances of locals catching octopuses in areas where visitors often snorkel. “They complain about it happening, and they say that nothing is being done to protect the reefs.”
Bemoaning the negative impacts on Ukulhas’ environment and image, he stressed these occurences could be prevented if proper regulations were in place.
“But there aren’t any policies implemented,” he said. “The police don’t enforce any legal action against [culprits] and the council doesn’t have any regulations set for this. The people are upset.”
He went on to claim that the reasoning behind residents choosing to lay the dead sharks in front of the council’s office could be to get authorities to take the matter more seriously.
“We have a union at Ukulhas,” he said, referring to the Guesthouse Association of Ukulhas (GAU). “We’ve been trying to solve this through discussions, but there isn’t much cooperation.”
Mihaaru reached out to Ukulhas Island Council for comment but was not able to get a statement.
In the wake of the upsetting incident, the diving community of the Maldives also spoke up, raising concerns over what appears to be a communication gap between some fishermen and the tourism sector.
A veteran diver told Mihaaru that, outside of Ukulhas as well, upsurges in shark populations tend to alarm many fishermen.
“The truth is, more sharks result in bigger fish populations,” he said; his claim is backed by mounting research gathered by various scientific groups, all indicating that sharks as well as the fish they prey on, grow more abundant in areas with fishing restrictions.
“Yet there are several fisherman who remain unaware of the fact.”
He stressed the need for better awareness and education in all sectors, to ensure continued conservation efforts, and enhance both the tourism and fisheries industries.
Mihaaru’s sources also urged the authorities to be more proactive and take the proper action to stop illegal activities that harm protected species.
Following alarming drops in shark populations, the Maldives had first imposed a 10-year moratorium on shark fishing in seven atolls in 1998. After the moratorium expired, a ban on reef shark fishing was implemented in 2008. A year later, the government officially imposed a total ban on shark fishing, establishing the Maldives as a shark sanctuary.