Studies suggest that India has the world’s second biggest shark fishery, but very little is known about elasmobranchs along the country’s extensive coastline. Dipani Sutaria has spent decades working on India’s marine mammals but now she, along with a team of young scientists, is embarking on a new journey into the realm of shark research.
How did a dolphin biologist make the shift to studying sharks?
I still work on dolphins, but this project interested me because when CITES came out with its latest recommendations in 2013, we had a meeting to figure out what to do next. That was the first time I encountered the politics surrounding sharks and shark fisheries in India. I found out that we know very little about shark fisheries and shark biology to start with and that is what motivated me to write a research proposal.
What major questions is your project aiming to address?
We are currently looking at sharks off western India, mainly along the coasts of Maharashtra and Gujarat. We want to find out about species diversity and any seasonal change in diversity, as well as about the sex of individuals in this area, their size and when they reach maturity. If we can, we would like to get an idea of which species are more abundant than others. We also want to figure out the supply chain – at least within India, if not all the way to the international level. Lastly, we want to know what fishermen think about conserving sharks and the policies relating to that, and we’d like to get an idea of where they are fishing, how much they fish and how often they catch sharks.
Is it true that India has the second largest shark fishery in the world?
It may have been true in the past and perhaps it is still true relatively speaking. If sharks are still being caught everywhere – opportunistically, that is – then we could rank quite high. At the moment I am not sure. This claim is based on the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] figures of 2006. Shelley Clarke and her colleagues reported that India came just after Indonesia in the shark-fin trade. The numbers are based on imports into Hong Kong and Singapore, not on our exports, so there is a mismatch between their import and our export figures. But if you go down to Kochi and Chennai and those areas, you can still see large numbers of sharks being brought in.
Indian fishermen catch the second largest number of sharks in the world. Dipani and her team are collecting data in manic fish markets to create a baseline understanding of the country’s sharks and how to save them.