top of page

In search of the elusive sharks among the reefs of India

Written by Dr. Shaili Johri, President Society for Conservation Biology Marine Program and Postdoctoral Researcher at Stanford University

The names and locations in this article have been changed to protect the identity of the people and the locations of the shark sanctuaries.

Sharks and rays evolved around 440 million years ago and are one of the oldest and most evolutionary divergent species groups inhabiting the planet today [1]. These evolutionarily resilient species play important roles in the unique ecological niche each species inhabits. Sharks and rays are apex predators in many marine and freshwater ecosystems and so the fate of these apex predators defines the future of the ecosystems they inhabit. Although majestic and charismatic, feared by many cultures and communities, sharks are not immune to the threats that much of the world’s biodiversity faces today [2]. In fact, long generation times and low fecundity results in sharks and rays being particularly vulnerable to the anthropogenic pressures facing the ocean today – in particular, to fishing related mortality [3].

Many marine and freshwater ecosystems today face unprecedented fishing pressure due to illegal, unregulated, or unreported fishing (IUU), distant water fishing (DWF), and data deficiencies relating to species distributions and stock assessments. Both IUU and DWF fishing are often uncoupled from local ecological knowledge and community fishing regulations and therefore result in huge biodiversity, biocultural diversity, and revenue losses for the ecosystems, communities, and their cultures. Furthermore, species- or region-specific data deficiencies have resulted in the absence of protective regulations which are needed to maintain species stocks and prevent local species extinctions.

Given the massive and rapid species depletions and constantly shifting baselines, where does one start with conservation? In essence, which species or populations do we protect first?

This is the question I asked when embarking on a conservation project to protect remaining reef shark populations in the Indian Ocean. It is one of the most biodiverse, and yet the most data-deficient oceanic regions of the world, with rampant IUU and DWF fishing resulting in a large proportion of its shark and ray species threatened with extinction [2,4].

On the question of what species to begin with, we prioritized reef sharks as this species group is one of the most impacted from IUU fishing - even inside no-take marine protected areas [5,6]. Our key questions were: which populations of reef sharks around the Indian Ocean are the most threatened with extinction and so should be prioritized for conservation; and which countries are engaging in illegal fishing and where? We decided to answer these questions by making a genetic catalogue of free ranging reef shark populations across the entire arc of the Indian Ocean, from South Africa in the west to Western Australia in the east. The idea was to estimate genetic variation in these populations and assess the population size needed to generate the respective level of variation in the populations. By comparing genetic variation between distinct populations we were also able to assess if disparate populations are interbreeding or disconnected, and we could determine where sharks sold at markets were originally fished from.

One of our study sites for the project was in the Lakshadweep Archipelago located in the southwest of India. Reef sharks were thought to be locally extinct in mainland India based on reports from fisheries scientists and surveyors. On the Lakshadweep Islands, there were limited fisheries surveys, and until our work, no signs of the presence of the reef shark species we were interested in had been recorded. Despite this, anecdotal reports from divers spoke of encounters with reef sharks in Lakshadweep – and so in hope, we decided to investigate.

Charting the Lakshadweep Islands for sharks

I have been working in the field of shark and ray conservation for a few years now , have several dives, and a number of visits to fish markets under my belt. Unfortunately, though, I have seen a much larger number of sharks, fished and dead, outside the water than free swimming in the beautiful "blue Serengeti". Before this expedition, I had heard the Lakshadweep archipelago in the southwest of India was different, or so I thought. In hope of finding evidence, I decided to look myself to find sharks in this region, be them dead or alive. This work represents only a small part of my conservation research to assess reef shark populations across the Indian Ocean.

I made it to the Bangaram Island within the Lakshadweep Archipelago, in 2022 and 2023. We saw just one reef shark during a short series of dive surveys on the island in 2022, although I found reports and photos from local fishermen of silvertip sharks caught in the islands. In 2023, I did extensive dive surveys alongside Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV) surveys. BRUV surveys are a popular method to assess shark and ray biodiversity across reefs, and work by luring sharks, rays, and other predator fish with bait, and recording them via underwater video to monitor biodiversity. Unfortunately, we found no sharks on the many BRUV set-ups (Movie 1) and saw just a couple of reef sharks (Movie 2) after numerous dives in the warm waters of the archipelago. Though, we saw plenty of other interesting sea life. To dive deeper into this mystery, we decided to explore the archipelago further to identify nursery grounds for sharks.

Lakshadweep archipelago in the southwest of India
Lakshadweep archipelago in the southwest of India

Movie 1: Unfortunately, we found no sharks on the many BRUV set-ups...

Movie 2: ... and only saw a couple of reef sharks...

Reef Sharks: the reef is their home, and they are the kings, the apex predators in ecological parlance, and yet they seemed to have abandoned the throne and their kingdom with the reef in disarray, only peppered with fragments of life and the dusky shadows of eels.

Yussuf, the leader of our dive team, had helped me capture a few BRUVs and set up bait to lure the elusive sharks earlier in the day. We had seen the dramatic feeding of a moray and the patient pickings of a trigger fish thus far, but still no sharks had been lured. Did we fail to lure them in or were they missing? All the fishermen at the Bangaram resort had disappeared as they were helping with preparations for a satellite event of the G20 Science-20 Summit meeting under the theme of “Disruptive Science for Innovative and Sustainable Growth”. As a result, we were left with no fishers and no fishing gear. But we had come this far, and we could not give up.

Yussuf put together a search party with me and Rahim, our boat captain and navigation and fishing expert at the helm. Rahim is a 70-year-old seasoned boat captain, native to the area, with a strong sense of belonging and incredible knowledge of the area. Weary, sunburnt, thirsty, and distraught from many an hour in the watery wilderness, we were yet again on a tiny boat riding away on the waves in search of the elusive reef shark nurseries. We set out towards the Amrut islands, and on the way stopped to borrow fishing gear from Yussuf’s friend. A small lanky frame emerged from a reed hut with a thatched roof and lent us the net, no questions asked. Rahim steered the boat in the direction of what he knew to be a site where he had often seen baby reef sharks. My sense of anticipation was rising with cautious enthusiasm. I did not know the area well and although part of me wanted to believe in Rahim’s conviction, I was measured in my optimism and hope of finding the elusive sharks.

We reached our location, an area of shallow sand flats. Our eyes peered through every inch of the shallow blue waters searching for the tiny triangles that signaled the tips of the dorsal fins of reef sharks. As I inspected the scene I recalled when I last encountered reef sharks at the Palmyra Islands, a protected area in in the Central Pacific. There, I saw many tiny black triangles scurrying swiftly across the sand flats and then swimming away, disappearing as fast as they appeared. However, today in Lakshadweep the flats were devoid of the tiny black triangles, devoid of the sharks. Rahim and Yussuf looked disappointed, something had changed since their previous visits: did we arrive too late, did the lunar cycle shift the tides or was it something else, something perhaps more sinister?

In this moment, amidst the heat and dehydration, I was ready to give up. Fortunately, the rest of the search party had other plans. Yussuf directed Rahim to fire up the engine and drive us to another part of the island where he remembered spotting sharks before. When we reached our destination Yussuf and I stayed in the boat, exhausted from the dives. I was resigned to my fate and almost certain we would never find the ‘tiny black triangles’. Despite this, Rahim was determined, he jumped off the boat and went for a reconnaissance mission, trying not to splash and not to alert the skittish baby sharks of his arrival. He disappeared for what seemed to be an eternity.

Baby reef shark spotted from the boat
Baby reef shark spotted from the boat

Eventually, my gaze met Rahim’s as he rushed back to the surface with excitement. He alerted us of his finds – finally, the "tiny black triangles"! We picked up our gear and, led by Rahim, we rushed to the spot, and there they were. We saw numerous baby sharks swimming around with what looked like golden yellow bat rays - all basking in the crimson light of the setting sun. Rahim and Yussuf set up the fishing net and I, still in awe of what we had found, got ready to measure and photograph our tiny study specimens. Within moments, we found many sharks and a few rays within the confines of the fishing net. We gingerly lifted our first "prisoners", measured, and photographed them and within moments set them off safely back in the waters outside the confines of the fishing net. No one was let go without immense admiration and respect. In fact, I was so overcome with emotions of joy and affection, that I gently petted one of our sharky guests before setting them off. Rahim, while holding them with a firm yet gentle grip, gave me a curious look while hiding a shy chuckle.

With none of the glory or the fanfare of a marine protected area, with no one watching, here was a thriving shark and ray nursery. The ‘tiny black triangles’ and the ‘golden yellow hexagons’, told us that the reef was alive, and this brought us what felt at the time to be ethereal joy. We wrapped up our fishing net and gathered all the goat fish which had found their way into our net. The goat fish were to be a gift for Yussuf’s friend, a return favour for lending us his net. We bid our farewells and showered our blessings on the tiny black triangles and golden hexagons, may they continue to thrive to adulthood, and may they remain a secret, hidden and protected.

Yussuf’s friend and his wife welcomed us with hot tea and biscuits, a true bliss after a long hot day on the water. The friend had just climbed down the palm tree from which he was collecting sap to make palm jaggery. He handed me a large warm jar of fresh palm jaggery and insisted we stay for dinner in his humble dwelling, which seemed to be an endless source of grace and generosity.

Onwards from Amrut

I left Amrut Island that day with a sense of deep calm and contentment before the distant hum of worries quickly closed in. It gave me immense joy and peace to see the baby reef sharks thriving in the island nursery, we watched them scurry away and disappear into the crimson hues of the horizon off Amrut island just as quickly as they had first appeared. It was a pleasant surprise to see them doing well without any formal protections, without the real confines of a ‘marine protected area’.

The shark nursery reminded me of the one in Palmyra Atoll, where I had been just a year ago, a site strictly protected by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. I could not help but compare the stark differences in governance of Lakshadweep and Palmyra, with the latter almost unapproachable, even for us as a team of researchers, educators, and students, let alone illegal fishers. However, based on the reduced shark numbers compared to a few years earlier, illegal fishing is still suspected to occur at Palmyra and the neighbouring islands, though to a lesser extent compared to an unregulated place. In Lakshadweep access is not that difficult, and though mainland fishing boats are not permitted to conduct industrial fishing within the archipelago, our surveys among the island inhabitants indicate that the boundaries are suspected to be porous and industrial-scale fishing may still occur illegally in the region. Shark sightings at Palmyra were relatively more frequent compared to Lakshadweep, which may be indicative of the relative success of protective measures in Palmyra. However, this is symbolic of our oceans and reflects the reality that no part of the ocean is untouched and that ‘pristine’ is a very relative term. Irrespective of the presence or absence of regulations, the baby sharks were carefree, thriving, and frolicking in both places, at least for now.

However, as the tourism industry takes off with increasing popularity in the Lakshadweep archipelago, and as the government continues to invest in development of the archipelago for use not just in tourism but also for business meetings such as the G20 summit, the future of the island’s shark nurseries appears precarious. As a stark reminder of what was coming, just as we were driving away from the islands, we could see barges filled several feet high with furniture and concrete, and more were docking onto reefs close to the shore leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Ironically, this was in preparation for the G20 science summit which aimed to discuss “sustainable development, health, environment, and climate change”. Organisers of the same G20 summit also aimed at uprooting and removing Yussuf’s friend and his family from his dwelling so the island could have a sanitised appearance. The same G20 summit which aimed to deliberate on sustainable development destroyed numerous reefs, uprooted communities, and disregarded local and indigenous cultures and heritage practices.

India lacks effective marine protected areas and effective regulations in its fisheries. At the current rate it will lose a vast portion of its biodiversity to fisheries related mortality.

Commercial fisheries, one of the largest revenue contributors to India’s GDP, are already suffering from reduced catch per unit effort and will continue to decline further as apex predator populations are decimated and the health of ecosystems deteriorates. We need to invest in community-based approaches for a sustainable and effective conservation model.

By engaging with community knowledge, practices, and frameworks, we can protect not only these species, but the people who live alongside them
By engaging with community knowledge, practices, and frameworks, we can protect not only these species, but the people who live alongside them

The people of Lakshadweep want to preserve their island ecology and the marine wilderness. Through community-led, co-created projects, we can help them protect these thriving nursery grounds which support the vast majority of sharks, ray and turtle species found in the region. By engaging with community knowledge, practices, and frameworks, we can protect not only these species, but the people who live alongside them. I am hopeful that work led by others [7–9] and myself [10,11] will enable the identification of biodiversity hotspots and nursery areas for sharks and rays which can be protected by community-supported sustainable approaches. I am hopeful that these nursery grounds will continue to support and replenish the biodiversity of surrounding areas and preserve the biocultural heritage of people for generations to come.



bottom of page