How Sharks Keep Us Breathing: An Interview with Filmmaker Jonathan Ali Khan

Swapping fashion design for fish and wildlife, the film-maker Jonathan Ali Khan has been working on marine conservation in the UAE for the past 25 years. His series ‘Arabia’s Cycle of Life’ reached 25 million viewers in the MENA region and his latest project ‘Sharkquest Arabia’ is a 2-film TV documentary which uses natural history to communicate the issues facing sharks throughout Arabia’s waters. Green Prophet caught up with Jonathan Ali Khan to talk about the important role sharks play in keeping humans alive, what fisherman can do to protect sharks, the Japanese and Chinese lobby, and how TV and film may be the best way to reach a wide audiences about wildlife conservation.


Why are sharks important for preserving ecosystems and why should we be working for their conservation?

The role of sharks is to manage the food chain. It’s no mistake that these animals possess a formidable range of senses and qualities that have positioned them at the top of the aquatic food chain. As the apex predator, the role they play in the fundamental law of natural selection is in fact linked to the overall health of the seas of our planet. With 92% of our living biosphere being aquatic, almost 80% of our planet’s air is generated by the algae and microscopic phytoplankton that are found in the sea. Many thousands of fish species and other marine organisms feed on phytoplankton and algae. Sharks on the other hand prey on the fish that feed on plankton; right up through to the top of the food chain. So if we remove the sharks, as we are systematically doing at an unsustainable rate of over 70 million sharks a year, then it leaves the plankton feeders free of predation and free to gobble up the main source of our planet’s main oxygen supply! Therefore, it is in our interest to maintain a healthy source of oxygen and air, if we want to keep on breathing!

Some seas, such as around Japan, are already struggling with harmful algae blooms, forming red tides and anaerobic conditions that are causing explosions of super-jellyfish populations that are creating havoc with marine diversity, dominating and taking over what were once rich fishing grounds. Those same areas were once managed by a wide range of shark species that controlled the ecosystem effectively by feeding largely on the fish that preyed on the plankton feeders. Ever since those sharks were fished out from around the coast of Japan, the resulting imbalance has proven catastrophic. To a lesser degree, we have already seen similar results in the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf with red tides and toxic algae blooms. Add to that the other man-induced impacts of pollution, dredging and detrimental activities, including over-fishing in general; we are bringing about our own downfall. So, taking into account that we need to keep breathing, we really shouldn’t allow sharks to be removed from performing their important role.


Can you tell us a little about the work you do as project leader of Shark Quest Arabia?

Sharkquest Arabia is a 2-film TV documentary and awareness project using natural history as a way to communicate the issues facing sharks throughout Arabia’s waters. I chose sharks as the subject because I feel that what is happening to sharks around the world is the most shameful and biggest commercial sellout that man has ever perpetuated against the natural world. The consequences of the global shark fisheries for the fin trade is alarming at so many levels – and in my opinion is one of the biggest threats to our marine environment. I believe the shark story reflects the worst of mankind’s capacity and highlights the disconnection people now have from the natural world around us – if people are capable of allowing this genocide to continue to the point of extinction, then it is clear we are failing to communicate the right message.

It took nature over 400 million years of evolution and natural selection to create what is the perfect apex marine predator, positioning it at the top of the food chain to manage the resources of life on the reef and open oceans. It has taken man less than a hundred years to reduce their numbers to 20% of their population in most of our planet’s seas. I find that totally unacceptable and when I found out what role this region plays, I knew I had to try to open up the story for people in this region to start tackling the issues.

For me natural history television and films are the best ways to reach a wide audience with educational and factual content about wildlife conservation – and may well be one of the best chances that sharks have. My previous series “Arabia’s Cycle of Life” reached 25 million viewers in the MENA region and was later broadcast on Animal Planet Asia reaching another massive audience. However, natural history is still not widely supported by this region’s TV industry as it is not deemed commercially profitable with the media sales and advertising executives that sell sponsorship and airtime on regional channels. It’s sad to say that we really struggle to find support financially for this genre of programming as these executives in effect control what goes on air. I’ve actually been told there is no place for natural history on Arabic TV! That may seem ridiculous, but sadly it is currently still the case!

So, much of my time is spent on trying to raise sponsorship to find the last US$100,000 that we need to complete the 2 films and I am now reduced to only filming piecemeal as and when we have enough money to put together an expedition. What started off as a ‘2 year in the making project’, may take us 3 years to complete due to budgetary restrictions.


You moved to the UAE around 25 years ago to work on marine conservation. What changes have you witnessed in terms of fisherman’s practices in relation to sharks and their attitudes towards sharks?

I’m no scientist. But as a natural history filmmaker I’m totally obsessed with the science and wonders of the natural world around us. Especially in this region that has been my home for 25 years. In that time, I have dived and explored all the seas of the Arabian Peninsula and witnessed many changes. I didn’t always have these interests. I started off my working life as a fashion designer having studied at the London School of fashion and worked in Italy for 3 years designing ladies lingerie and menswear. I was totally oblivious of the pressing concerns of the world, until one day I had a personal awakening that transformed me into a photo-journalist covering war and famine in Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East. But fortunately I was a lousy photojournalist as I couldn’t remain impartial and I didn’t have the emotional detachment to continue down that road; alarmed as I was by the atrocity of what human’s perpetuate against each other! It’s no mistake that that experience led me to prefer the company of fish and wildlife.

All the same, I have somehow come full circle and even as a natural history filmmaker, I am still inescapably being forced to deal with the dark side of the human condition! Now I get to see the atrocities we perpetuate against our natural resources.

Since starting this project, I have to say that I have become more understanding towards the predicament of shark fishermen in this region. For the most part, the overall consensus of Omani fishermen for example, is that sharks are only an opportunistic catch and more than often not the main target. However, the scale of that opportunity is huge! So even if their intent was to catch tuna (which is generally more profitable for them on a good day), the conditions here allow them to catch staggering numbers of sharks. But more recently, fishermen are increasingly aware that numbers are down as they are catching less sharks than 10 or 20 years ago. But despite that, they are still very happy to land sharks as the unit value of a single shark increases all the time. So a shark that might have earnt them Dhs.2000 a couple of years ago, can now earn them between Dhs.5000 to Dhs.10,000, depending on the species and size. Try to tell a fisherman not to land a big hammerhead with rates like those!

But on the other hand, we have seen efforts to self-impose a 6 month ban on landing sharks by fishermen in a village in the Musandam in an attempt to give sharks a chance to re-populate an area. Although the intention is good, the effectiveness is totally lost– as sharks are slow to reproduce and gestate, not like other fishes that spawn billions of larvae repeatedly throughout the year. Sharks on the other hand may only have between 20 to 50 pups depending on the species and some will only reproduce once every two years. But equally important – if sharks become extinct in a specific area, there is little if any recruitment at all in sharks from other areas and that fished out area may remain so forever.

All the same, I am encouraged that it might be possible to work with these fishermen to create a better management of their resources, especially since they have been trying to do so themselves as they seem to understand what is happening. But like anywhere, it is a matter of enforcement that weakens the process. If the village is not doing well financially due to poor catches of other species, they will break their own self-imposed ban in order to bring in the money. The moment one starts, the others follow suit.


When people think of shark fishing or shark fining, they probably don’t make the connection to the Arab world, however, the region is increasingly involved in the hunting of sharks. Can you tell us a little about the growing threat to sharks in the Middle East?

Actually the threat to sharks in this region has been a threat for ages. But since the demand from China has been growing at a rate of 5% annually over the last 10 years, the situation has become critical. The fin trade has been active here for over 20 years but was simply overshadowed below a strata of amazing regional growth and development that no one realized it was as significant as it was. Certainly no one realized it was a serious threat to the marine environment as much of the science that has started to educate the world is relatively recent. Traffic International first tried to draw attention to the UAE’s role back in ’89 as their research revealed that Sharjah was at that time the 6th biggest exporter of fins to Hong Kong. Since then, the trade has shifted to Dubai in line with the efficiency of the transport system as a distribution hub. In talking to just one shark fin trader in Dubai, I have been told how they used to ship 7 containers of shark fins to Hong Kong every month 20 years ago! The volume of shark fin involved was staggering. Now it’s barely 400 kilos a month as far as he is concerned. He predicts the end of the shark fin trade in the UAE in 5 years time.

The UAE is not a significant shark fishing nation in itself. But it is still the main regional shark fin trade hub, collectively re-distributing fins from throughout the whole region, including Somalia, Eritrea, Yemen and Iran along with all the other GCC states. According to FAO [Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations], it is supplying around 8% of the fins reaching Hong Kong alone. These stats are more than likely very conservative and the number in fact a lot higher. Seeing as there are no trade controls, its hard to know.

As more and more awareness about the plight of sharks spreads across the world and even here through conservation authorities and decision makers, we believe that the next CITES conference [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species] will be different. Last year, CITES held their international meeting in Doha. For the first time ever, the international community was prepared with proposals to add 8 shark species to the CITES Appendix II list. Amongst those species proposed, 5 occur here in the seas of Arabia and are actually a big component of the shark landings and fin trade from our waters. Sadly the only species that made it through is the porbeagle shark (which doesn’t occur here).

I consider this a lost opportunity for the region. Sharkquest Arabia presented our promo and spoke to Arab delegates at a special screening organized by IFAW [International Fund for Animal Welfare] – all the same, the Japanese and Chinese lobbies were too persuasive and the tuna issues stole the moment. Despite the negative outcome, what has since transpired is an opportunity to enter into dialogue with conservation authorities and ministries. They know they need to address this issue and we all need to encourage them to do so. I firmly believe that it might be possible to ban the fin trade in the UAE with the right arguments


What one thing needs to change- either right away or in the next couple of years- if we want to continue to see sharks in Arabian waters?

Awareness! Normally awareness happens at the end of a conservation project based on the outcomes and deliverables of years of research, etc. In this case, we need to shift the onus of awareness to the front end and in doing so, highlight the need for more scientific research (upon which to base the right management decisions) and in order to target decision makers with a view to making them realize there is actually more than enough information and motivation to stop the fin trade or at least to educate the fishermen as to how they can better manage their resources. It all comes down to exposing honest and care driven information delivered in the right way.



                                                                Arwa Aburawa
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Arwa is interested in all things climate change related and Islam.