The locals are proud to pose with their dead sharks, rays, and barracudas. Many of them will even open the shark’s mouth for dramatic effect. “Picture, picture,” they said repeatedly as Jacques Van Wyk, a South African paramedic who works for a Dubai-based hotel group, led me through a pungent fish souq in Dubai in search of finned sharks. Along with a rusty spade and rebar, we found a few sharks carelessly strewn in the back of a transport truck.
One of them may be a juvenile whale shark – the gentle giants of the sea. But (I was privately relieved) we did not witness any finning today. That doesn’t mean it has stopped. Just a few days ago, Jacques witnessed 400 kilograms of fins being driven away.
Known at work as the “treehugger,” Jacques (left) first became aware of shark finning when a friend of his took him to a market four and a half years ago. They found a truck full of sharks, which they then followed back to the market where they were being sold. He has been coming to the markets regularly ever since.
If this sounds like a clandestine endeavor, that would be misleading. The salespeople fin sharks with as much indifference as nearby merchants sell their vegetables. They line the sharks up on a short wall at the far end of the market, slice off their fins, and pile them in a truck.
According to Van Wyk, most of the fish here come from Oman. “With so much phytoplankton, those waters are literally teeming with marine life.” But it is not legal to fin in Oman so they are brought to Dubai where they are processed and then shipped off.”
A curious fresh seafood salesman who spoke excellent English, Vijay confirmed that the cheaper fish comes from Oman, but the more expensive fish are caught on lines outside of Dubai.
He also explained that dried shark fins are too dry to eat, that they are only used for their taste.
Shark meat costs as little as $3 for two pounds, while a baby shark fetches approximately $40.
“Shark fin soup is on the menu of many high-profile functions,” Jacques said, “until that ends, the fishermen will continue to fish them.”
That hasn’t stopped Jacques from dreaming about how to make a difference.
In addition to potentially teaming up with Ernst Van Der Poll at Tawasul to screen the film Shark Water at the Jumeirah Beach Dive Center, he is working on plans to help his employer incorporate more environmental programs into their Corporate Social Responsibility portfolio.
Also, he and his girlfriend have plans to walk from Abu Dhabi to South Africa in the next couple of years in order to generate overall environmental awareness.
Having grown up in the bush in South Africa, Jacques is passionate about nature. “Sometimes I get down in the dumps,” he told me after we finally left the market to get fresh air and process what we had seen.
“But it’s good, because that is what gives me the motivation to go on.”