Curious about the Chondrichthyans of the United Arab Emirates and West Africa? Have no fear, this latest Behind the Fins interview will shed some light on those who call these waters home!
The Fins United Initiative: When did you know you wanted a career that revolved around the ocean? What got you interested in marine biology?
Rima Jabado: I have been obsessed with sharks ever since I can remember. Funnily enough, my fascination with them started when I watched the Jaws movie series. It never occurred to me then that I wanted or could work on these animals – I had never met a marine biologist. I just knew I wanted to learn as much about them as possible and I made my parents buy me every book I could get my hands on. It’s only in my early 20s, with the advent of internet, that that I started realizing that I could actually be involved in shark research. I decided to travel and volunteer on several projects that were related to threatened species (sharks, dolphins, and turtles) but the ones that had the most impact on me where the White Shark Trust in South Africa and later the Bimini Biological Field Station in the Bahamas. That’s when I really knew that I wanted a career where I could research sharks and contribute to their conservation.
TFUI: What are you currently studying right now?
RJ: I am currently based in the United Arab Emirates and I work on fisheries management both in this region but more recently in West Africa. While I try to work on a number of interdisciplinary fields through collaborations (e.g., taxonomy, genetics…), my focus has been documenting landings of sharks and rays in various artisanal and industrial fisheries, collecting biological data on these species, working with fisher communities to understand the socio-economic drivers behind these fisheries, and characterizing the trade in shark and ray products. I have also found myself increasingly involved in the policy aspect of shark conservation by using my results to inform management decisions.
TFUI: Why is your region so vital to Chondrichthyan populations?
RJ: I have been working in the northwestern Indian Ocean for about 10 years now. I came here on vacation and realized that there was very little information on sharks in the region in terms of species diversity, threats, biology, and conservation actions. But with increasing research, we now know that we have a huge diversity of species occurring in this region but also some of the largest shark and ray fisheries and trading hubs in the world. More recently, working with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Shark Specialist Group, we undertook an assessment of the extinction risk of species in this region using the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria. Our results show that we have some of the most threatened species of sharks and rays in the world with over 50% considered Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable. This highlights why this region is critical when it comes to the management of these species.
TFUI: In you opinion, are Chondrichthyans adequately protected in your region? Why or why not?
RJ: I don’t think many of shark and ray species that require the most attention are protected and this is partly due to the low priority that has been afforded to sharks and rays for many years. Things are slowly changing and there is increasing political will to make changes but governance in most countries is still weak and the pressure from fisheries too high.
TFUI: Do you think people in your country have a good relationship with the ocean environment? What about sharks? If not, what can be done to better it?
RJ: I am based in the United Arab Emirates and there has always been a very strong link between the marine environment and the inhabitants of this region. This is engrained in their heritage as a country that was dependent on its marine resources for food but also because of the importance of pearl diving. However, sharks were often seen as species to be feared with many tales about the interactions of pearl divers with various species like sawfishes or tiger sharks. There is increasing understanding of the need to protect sharks not only in the UAE but also in the broader region. We just need to keep pushing the political agenda to make sure that sharks are considered in the broader biodiversity conservation discussions.
TFUI: Tell us about the Gulf Elasmo project!
RJ: The Gulf Elasmo Project is an initiative that I started about 8 years ago when I was working on my PhD. I just wanted to give an identity to my project and it has since grown into a collaboration with scientists from across the region and further. The initiative has achieved a lot in a short amount of time in terms of research, awareness, and influence on policy and it has been because of the hard work and involvement of many people from volunteers that have helped and supported me throughout the years.
TFUI: What has been the coolest part of your research findings so far?
RJ: I think on most days my research is sad rather than cool unfortunately. My field time is mostly spent either talking to fishermen about their fishing practices and the changes they have seen in the marine environment or at landing sites documenting species landed and collecting biological data. What I do think is ‘cool’ however is the wealth of information that fishers have and share. It gives you such a different perspective, sometimes very different from the conservation view point, on the value and uses of various species. But I think working with them and understanding how they perceive a species has really helped me with pushing through conservation actions both at the community level but also at the high-level policy changes. I also get to see is huge diversity of species, something that is often not possible when undertaking fisheries-independent surveys which is quite cool (although I would much rather see them alive!!).
TFUI: What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself and your career in five years?
RJ: I love what I do which is a combination of research and fisheries management. I would like to continue working in these fields but expand my work to other countries both in the northwest Indian Ocean region and Africa. I not only enjoy doing research but building the capacity of fisheries scientists. I hope I can get more people involved in the field of shark and ray conservation so that we can make meaningful contributions to the conservation of these species.
TFUI: Do you have any advice for anyone in your region who wants to follow in your footsteps career wise?
RJ: I would love for more people to come work on sharks and rays in the northwestern Indian Ocean. We are a small group of people but quite active in our own field (and countries!) and have really shown that we can collaborate and work on projects together. It’s not always easy to work in this part of the world for various cultural and political reasons but my advice is to persevere, contact people that have established themselves here, and try and work closely together.
TFUI: What is your favorite Chondrichthyan species and why?
RJ: I don’t think I have been consistent with having a favorite species and I change my mind every year!! There are over 1250 species of sharks and rays that we know of and they all have something special! But right now, I am obsessed with the Rhinopristiforme order (sawfish, wedgefish, and guitarfish). They are beautiful animals that have seen their populations decline drastically in the past few decades because of their high-value fins and their susceptibility to various types of fishing gear. I am not sure how they have gone under the radar for so many years when they should really be considered charismatic megafauna at the same level as turtles, mantas, dolphins, and whales. I would really like to see more concerted actions to try and protect these species and ensure they don’t go extinct.
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK rima FOR Her TIME AND WE WISH Her WELL ON Her CURRENT/FUTURE PROJECTS!
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TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
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