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The shark markets of Sri Lanka

Like so many other tourists to Sri Lanka, I decided to spend my last couple of nights in Negombo. Closer to the international airport, quieter, and with a half decent beach (by Sri Lanka’s high standards), Negombo is an obvious choice over the hectic capital Colombo before flying home. When I heard that Negombo’s fish market was notorious for selling slightly more unusual marine species including giant lobster and crabs, sharks, and even manta rays, I knew I had to see it for myself.

Still not really knowing what to expect, we got into our tuktuk the next morning at 5am with the moon still high in the sky. Our driver showed us photos of a large hammerhead shark which he said was landed the day before.

The market is sprawled out along the bank of the opening to Negombo Lagoon and intersected by a busy road. On one side of the road, under a large roof, is what appears to be the small fish market. Dozens of vendors each with a number of large polystyrene ice boxes full of everything from bait fish to crabs and shrimp to large squid and mackerel. Across the road is where the large boats moor up and unload their catch following many days at sea. Although there are white tiled benches, the majority of the trading seems to take place in the roofed off outdoor section. Fishermen unload and display their catch before it is auctioned off. In the back corner of this concrete slab, is where we found the sharks. There must have been over 50 sharks landed including mako, blue, bull, as well as a dozen mobula rays. All of them had been gutted and the smaller ones had already been finned and beheaded. By about 7am there were a number of tourists milling around the market taking photos and being shown the large marlin and tunas being auctioned.

The only shark species protected in Sri Lanka are the three species of thresher sharks, oceanic white tip shark, and whale shark, for which it is illegal to land any individuals. For all other sharks, as long as the shark is whole (landing just the fins of a shark is illegal) when taken off the boat, no law has been broken.

As a conservation marine biologist with experience working in the dive industry, it was a rude awakening to the scale of shark fisheries. More than half of the species I saw, I have never seen alive in my 600+ dives across a dozen countries. Granted, some of these species are pelagic species like the blue and mako sharks, however I find it incredibly worrying how much easier it is to find these species for sale in fish markets than alive in our oceans.

Slightly shocked by what I witnessed on the first morning I decided to spend the morning before my flight back in the fish market to see if the first day was just a bad day for sharks. On the second morning, we arrived a little later. There appeared to be much less activity, with only one or two sharks and a few mobulid rays dotted around. Although it seemed we weren’t going to be able to film and document the shark landings again, we had a huge sense of relief that maybe, just maybe, the previous day had been a one off.

Just as we were about to head home, a large ice truck backed up into the landing area. Joseph thought he saw a shark under the piles of ice in the truck, and that’s when it started happening. Shark after shark was unloaded from the back of the ice truck and laid out on the floor. The larger sharks were pushed, dragged and rolled out of the truck, with the smaller specimens flung out onto the ground. Over 200 sharks in total including mako, bull, blue, and blacktips like the day before, but also scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead, silvertip, and half a dozen baby tiger sharks.

We watched and filmed in horror for nearly two hours as they unloaded over 200 sharks and lined them up. Once they were grouped by species, there was a buzz of activity as an auctioneer did a round of the sharks.

After the auctioning, attention turned to 4 or 5 rice sacks that had been left in the ice truck. As we watched, the dealer emptied the bags onto the blood stained tile floor. Shark fins. Hundreds of them.

A quick glance at any of a number of restaurants along Negombo’s main tourist beach road and you would see ‘devilled shark’, or ‘grilled shark steak’ on the menu. The main value in landed sharks however, doesn’t come from the meat. It comes from the fins which are, for the most part, exported to China and Hong Kong to fuel the demand for shark fin soup.

It was also the first place in Sri Lanka I experienced no attention or touting from the locals. The buyers and sellers go about their business without much care for the dozen or so tourists who visit and take photos around the market.

I left Sri Lanka with a sinking feeling that sharks were a lost cause here.

Now working as a marine biologist for the Manta Trust in the Maldives, I’m lucky enough to see manta rays most days at work. Something stayed with me from that disturbing trip to Negombo fish market. I decided to use my holiday time to see what the situation was like around other parts of Sri Lanka.

With the guidance of Daniel Fernando, a prominent figure in Sri Lankan political marine conservation world and co-founder of Blue Resources NGO I set out a little tour of southern Sri Lankan fish markets.

I returned and visited 4 main fishing markets along the southwest coast over a 1 week period. My trip came just after the Sri Lankan New Year, Aluth Avurudda and as a result I was told time and time again that the number of boats out fishing, and thus the quantities of landed fish, sharks and rays, was considerably lower than normal.

I came across mobula and sharks in all of the markets but not in huge numbers thankfully. It wasn’t until my last morning back in Negombo again when I saw the large scale shark fishing at work again. Just like on my previous trip, it was the final that morning that packed a punch.

A single large tuna fishing vessel moored up on the bank of Negombo fish market and drew a large crowd of locals. The boat then started unloading the sharks from the iced storage chests. Hoisting them out with a winching pulley system and then dragged across the market with a hook, they unloaded a total of 34 sharks including 31 blue sharks. They then proceeded to unload the target species – tuna and marlin.

Whilst filming and photographing what was going on, one of the fishermen invited me on board. He showed me the storage hulls and the barrels of longline hooks used to catch the gigantic tuna. In broken English, he explained they are equally happy when they catch either tuna or shark as both are valuable.

Over the two trips, I only ever saw the fins of one illegally landed shark; an oceanic-white tip. Does that mean the shark bans are working? There’s no way the fishermen can discriminate which sharks take the baited longline hooks. So either, those sharks are discarded back into the ocean, or sold elsewhere, out of the public eye.

Back in neighbouring Maldives, I took a few extra days out to do some diving and saw nice schools of grey reef sharks, some mobula rays, and mantas. There is a complete ban on shark and ray fishing here in the Maldives which is upheld for the most part. It was refreshing to see so many sharks alive and well where they belong and gave me hope that it is possible to protect these beautiful creatures.

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