Whale shark

Whale shark, Kalpityia

Sharks of Sri Lanka

  • Consumer demand for shark fins, meat and liver oil.

  • Lack of compliance with existing fishing regulations.

  • Over-fishing resulting in a population disappearance.

  • Illegal fishing practices (eg. dynamiting, "Leila" nets).

  • Fisheries bycatch (long line & net entanglement).

  • Habitat reduction due to increasing human activities.

  • Catch and bycatch of protected shark species.

Why protect sharks in Sri Lanka


  • Sharks are apex predators in our ocean near the top of the marine food chain and help regulate populations of species in the marine ecosystem.

  • Their slow growth to reach maturity and reproduce relatively few pups within a relative short lifespan makes them susceptible to overexploitation.

  • They are important to the economic survival of the fishing industry.

  • Whale sharks and reef sharks have the potential to attract large numbers of tourists each year amounting to several millions of dollars in foreign earnings. A better income generating alternative to shark finning and liver oil extraction.

  • Sri Lanka should follow the example of the Maldives and other nations to support international conservation and protection of sharks because several species traverse geographic and international boundaries and interbreed during their lifespan thereby requiring global conservation and management measures across their extensive range.

Regrettably, the popular image of a shark is that of a cruel and mindless creature whose only purpose in life is to kill and eat humans. Although nothing can be further from the truth ......

– Rex I. De Silva

Author & Biologist, 2015

Discovering Sharks


Evidence of sharks dates back more than 420 million years ago to the Ordovician period before land animals existed. Modern sharks began to appear about 100 million years ago. Sharks and rays belonging to the Sub-class Elasmobranchii are organized in two infraclasses of which all sharks are all included in Selachii.


Sharks are a group of fish that have skeletons made of cartilage unlike bony fish, five to seven gill slits on either side of their head and pectoral fins (flippers) that are not fused to the head. The upper edges of the orbits are free from the eyeballs, so that they form free eyelids. They have multiple rows of teeth, and any losses of teeth are replaced by new growth. Shark lifespans vary by species. Most shark species live 20 to 30 years but the whale shark has a long lifespan and may live over 100 years.

Sharks are found all around Sri Lanka throughout the year. They are distributed from lagoons and estuaries to the depths of the open ocean (up to about 2,000m). A few are also found in rivers. Each species has its own geographic and depth distribution. Some species migrate regularly or are occasional visitors.


At least 63 species from 21 families and 6 orders are known to occur in Sri Lankan waters. Of these 30% are regularly seen, 30% are occasionally seen and the balance 40% are uncommon or rare.


Contrary to popular belief, only a few sharks are dangerous to humans. Sharks are much more likely to be killed by humans than the other way around. Very few shark attacks have been recorded in Sri Lanka and are not well understood. See a list of shark attacks.

For centuries the nation has enjoyed the ocean’s resources with traditional fishing skills. In the 1970s, fisheries sector became largely driven by the international market demands for fishery products. Consequently, such high demands on shark products result in the over-exploitation of fisheries resources.

Shark Conservation

In recent years, shark conservation and management around the world has taken the form of fishing regulations, finning bans and sharks fin trade bans. More than a dozen countries including the Maldive Islands have banned shark fishing since the beginning of this century. Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the CMS Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Conservation of Migratory Sharks. CMS is an intergovernmental treaty formed under the United Nations Environment Program. 


In Sri Lanka five species of sharks are protected by law. No person shall catch thresher shark species, of the family Alopiidae (Gazette 1768/36 of 27 July 2012). As of October 2016, the whale shark and Oceanic whitetip shark (protected under CITES Appendix II) were added to the protected species in Sri Lanka. 


The practice of shark finning and discarding the carcass at sea is prohibited (Gazette 1206/20 of 17 October 2001). All sharks landed and brought ashore must have their fins attached. Shark conservation in Sri Lanka appears to be just starting to make its mark but has yet a long way to go to catch up with the Maldives.

Next steps towards shark conservation

  • Education programs on the benefits of conservation.

  • Increased shark species protection: Urgently needed is protection to be extended to all reef sharks and endangered shark species.

  • Work towards banning export of shark body parts and extracts; shark fins and oil. (Large profits are made by importers and retailers in Asia and not by Sri Lankans).

  • Promote ecotourism of sharks and manta rays as an alternative to fishing which will provide more revenue to the local economy than fishing.

  • Survey: Baseline data. Collect shark fisheries survey data (with regard to the species, size composition, weight, value of catches, fishing methods, fishing areas, etc.).

  • Identify vulnerable species to be protected in medium and long term.

  • Identify and protect critical habitats.

  • Develop a sustainable fisheries development and management plan.

  • Establish shark fishing by permit only identifying fishing grounds, species size and catch limits. Part of a fisheries management plan to increase local revenue and conserve fish stocks.

Whale shark Kalpitiya Sri Lanka
Whale shark.

Further reading:

Identifying Sharks


Identifying a shark often comes down to a process of elimination. Location, habitat and the family to which the species belongs (more easily identified than the species itself) are important factors in this process. Remember that one physical feature is rarely enough for a positive identification.


In identifying sharks, there are a number of factors to consider as depicted in the shark ID chart. Use this shark ID chart as an aid to eliminate groups. Gather as much information as possible before coming to any conclusions.

Tabulated below is a checklist of over 60 sharks that may be found in Sri Lankan waters.

Legend - Status:  XX = rare, X = uncommon, √ = occassional, √√ = frequent, # = unconfirmed.

> = Protected by Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act.

Sri Lanka Shark Identification Chart

Shark ID Chart

Shark Species