Ocean News

Hope for Palau’s sharks, but not the South Aral Sea

3rd October 2009

Apologies for my recent slacking on the news blog front: I’ve been busy writing up the latest findings of the SOSF silky shark project, which of course will be made available in good time. Having only just arrived this morning at our research facility in the Red Sea to continue the expansion of our work on silky sharks, I’ve managed to catch up on a few bits of marine news through the haze of jet lag.

One of the most uplifting news stories of late was the announcement by Palauan President Johnson Toribiong last week that the waters of Palau – covering an area approximately the size of France – will henceforth represent the world’s first sanctuary for sharks. These newly protected waters will completely prohibit the exploitation of more than 135 endangered and vulnerable shark species, including great hammerhead and oceanic whitetip sharks.

They have their work cut out for them, however, with only a single patrol boat to cover the 240,000 square mile protected area, within which a recent flyover by Australian aircraft revealed more than 70 fishing vessels, many operating illegally. But despite the challenges with enforcement they now face, this is an exemplary gesture of which other nations should take note and realise the importance of apex predators such as sharks not only for the stable functioning of marine ecosystems, but also sustaining our own economies and the nutritional needs of a growing global population.

A separate piece of largely overlooked, somewhat poignant news is the complete disappearance of all fish from the South Aral Sea, as reported by Russian ecologists. Back in the early 1960’s the Aral Sea supported a thriving commercial fishing industry that employed tens of thousands of people. But now there’s nothing.

This cataclysmic extinction of fish from the South Aral Sea was not in fact directly caused by the fisheries themselves, rather the siphoning of water from the two rivers that flow into the Aral in order to irrigate expansive cotton fields in Central Asia. High evaporation and reduced input has caused the sea to shrink below 10% of its original size, dramatically increasing the concentration of salts and minerals to the point where the water is no longer habitable.

As the last remnants of life dwindle from this parched oasis, Uzbekistan mounts extensive exploration of the seabed to exploit potential oil and gas reservoirs…