Soon the waters off the Maldives may become a favorite haunt of our world’s most feared and misunderstood predators. The New York Times reports that the Indian Ocean island nation will become the second country to announce blanket protection for its sharks. A tiny Micronesian state called Palau was the first to announce a ban on shark fishing in September.

The Maldives, an atoll nation in the Indian Ocean spread over 90,000 square kilometers, is considered the smallest Asian country in both size and population. Despite its small stature, the Maldives became a major exporter of shark fins and an aggressive contributor to the process of “finning” — cutting off a shark’s fin and dumping it to die back in the ocean. Beginning July 1, there will be a total ban on exports of shark fins. 

The shark fin trade is flourishing in Asia, where experts say 70 million sharks are killed each year to support the trade. The NY Times reports that most shark fins are sold for soups made in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. But because sharks have been so overfished, the value of the Maldives' shark trade has fallen more than 80 percent in the last 12 years. One expert said, “one living gray reef shark was worth $3,300 a year to the Maldives' tourism industry, while a fisherman would get a one-time value of $32 from the same shark.” Therefore, the move to conserve them is partially to preserve the island nation’s economy.

The shark population is particularly susceptible to overfishing because sharks only give birth to a few pups at a time. Further, they often take up to 10 years to mature. Leaving them safely in the water is the essential key to their survival. The new shark sanctuary zone in the Maldives will cover about 90,000 square kilometers, or 35,000 square miles. 

Matt Rand is the director of global shark conservation at the Pew Environment Group. He tells the NY Times that the value of sharks to the Maldives is in tourism and diving. According to Rand, “Any diver will tell you that you get a rush of exhilaration when you see a shark, but you’re not scared. OK, maybe sometimes you’re scared.” The government plans to provide shark fisherman with financial support and retraining.

Experts feel this protective move by Maldives may lead other nations to similar legislation. In the United States, the House of Representative has passed the Shark Conservation Act, which would sharply curtail the practice of "finning." It awaits confirmation in the Senate. The United Nations may follow suit with similar laws. Hopes are that this legislation will curtail the extinction of these ancient creatures that have outlived the dinosaurs.

For further reading: Maldives bans fishing of sharks