Jaws of life | Green

Pop culture has given sharks an undeservedly scary reputation. What’s truly frightening, reports Erline Andrews, is a sea without sharks, vital for a healthy marine ecosystem. And after decades of neglect, the countries of the Caribbean are finally waking up to the importance of shark conservation — for the environment, but also for their economies

  • Photo by Fiona Ayerst/Shutterstock.com
  • Tagging a shark off Sint Maarten. Photo by Tadzio Bervoets/courtesy Nature Foundation Sint Maarten

In late 2017, aquatic environment experts from around the Americas came together at UN House in Marine Gardens, Barbados, for the region’s biggest-ever meeting devoted to the ocean’s most important resident. The building’s sleek exterior is dominated by glass panes as azure as the water off the beaches surrounding many Caribbean islands, making the location even more fitting. 

“Sharks play an important role in maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems,” said Vyjayanthi Lopez, a representative from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, welcoming more than thirty men and women from fifteen countries, which included the United States, the biggest, and Antigua and Barbuda, the smallest. The FAO organised the meeting.

“Aside from contributing to the ecological sustainability of marine life,” Lopez continued, “the shark species also contribute to social and economic sustainability.”

The Barbados meeting was the culmination of a burst of activity within recent years, after decades of apathy that saw shark numbers dwindle because of overfishing and habitat destruction. About a third of shark and ray species in the Americas are listed as endangered, vulnerable, or threatened by the international organisation responsible for keeping track. But the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has only been able to give assessments for species for which there are enough data to make a determination. Almost half of the sharks and rays in the region have been deemed “data deficient” — not enough information has been collected about them.

To help make up lost ground in shark monitoring and protection, a couple of data collection projects started in 2012, with the Belize-based research organisation MarAlliance using underwater cameras, tagging, and other techniques to track sharks and rays in Belize, Cuba, and elsewhere in the region. In 2015, Florida International University started the Global FinPrint, a three-year underwater camera survey of sharks and rays around the world. Researchers in the Caribbean countries of Belize, the Dominican Republic, Barbados, the Bahamas, and the Cayman Islands are participating.

The only legally binding multilateral agreement to protect wildlife in the Caribbean, the Protocol Concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (known as the SPAW Protocol), last year for the first time extended protections to sharks and rays, prohibiting the commercial exploitation of one type of sawfish and listing whale sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks, hammerhead sharks, and manta rays as vulnerable and in need of fishing controls.

In 2015 and 2016, environmental philanthropist Richard Branson co-hosted symposia in the Bahamas and Sint Maarten, bringing government leaders together to hear marine experts and activists promote shark sanctuaries, areas prohibiting shark fishing and the trading of shark parts. This led to a group of Caribbean countries declaring their waters as shark sanctuaries. Shark sanctuaries around the world are located in areas that rely on sun and sea to attract tourists. And the health of the sea relies on sharks, which are at the top of the ocean food chain. Like other predators, they control the populations of animals lower on the chain and maintain balance in nature. 

The Bahamas established the first shark sanctuary in the Caribbean in 2011. It was followed by the British Virgin Islands (2014), the Caribbean Netherlands (Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Bonaire, 2015), the Cayman Islands (2016), Sint Maarten (2016), Curaçao (2016), and Grenada (2016). “Our surveys have shown that most tourists come for our pristine waters and vibrant marine ecosystem,” says Johanna Kohler, a shark researcher and conservationist in the Cayman Islands. “Most divers love to see sharks when diving, and even tourists who don’t want to see a shark while diving or swimming appreciate knowing that sharks are present, because it is a well-known fact that sharks are important to our oceans.”

 

One country on its own can protect the animals in its land space. The sea is a different prospect, especially in a region as small as the Caribbean. To have any real impact, efforts to protect marine life need the involvement of all or most countries in the region.

“We’ve tagged a tiger shark in Sint Maarten, and it swam the breadth of the Caribbean,” says Tadzio Bervoets, who’s heading a research and public education project in the Dutch Caribbean called Save Our Sharks. “It swam all the way to Trinidad, then it went to Barbados, hung out there for a while. Then it swam up to the Dominican Republic, almost made it to Jamaica. Now it’s hanging around Puerto Rico,” he says.

“It’s not like the shark is not going to go to St Lucia because there’s a risk of being caught there. A joint effort has to be put in place to manage our ocean resources sustainably.”

The FAO’s Caribbean reps have put together what’s called an RPOA — a regional plan of action to protect sharks. The hope is that each country will take the RPOA and design an NPOA — national plan of action — that meets its own needs and abilities, empowered through legislation and enforcement. 

An IPOA — international plan of action — was already issued by the FAO at the turn of the century. Only four Caribbean countries — Cuba, Belize, Barbados, and Antigua and Barbuda — followed up with an NPOA. As laid out in the RPOA, shark conservation efforts would require research, training, enforcement, monitoring, public education, and financial investment. Countries are at different stages of making the commitment. 

Jamaica was not part of the FAO meeting, and it has not ratified the SPAW Protocol. The country’s attitude has a possible explanation in an academic survey of divers conducted between 2015 and 2016, to analyse the effectiveness of shark sanctuaries by comparing them to places without sanctuaries. The researcher couldn’t get participants from Jamaica — she was told, “there are no sharks here.” This may not necessarily be the case, Barbadian marine biologist Nikola Simpson explains. 

“The average individual is highly unlikely to see a shark where they usually swim. Most sharks are found further offshore,” she says. “It’s hard to tell what our regional population [of sharks] is because no one has really done an extensive study of it.”

Trinidad and Tobago did have a representative at the FAO meeting. The country’s support for shark conservation is important, because it is a major shipping point in the shark fin trade, which provides the main ingredient for a popular Asian soup. The trade has been condemned because it leads to the cruel and wasteful practice — called finning — of cutting off a shark’s fins and throwing the dismembered animal, still alive, back into the sea to drown or be eaten. 

T&T also has its own popular shark-based dish: bake and shark. The country has ratified the SPAW Protocol, and at the FAO meeting indicated that it planned to draft an NPOA. In 2014,  alarmed that it ranked high on a list of the countries that were the biggest exporters of shark fins, the government added T&T to the growing list of countries that banned finning. But there’s skepticism about how well the ban is being enforced. 

“We are an international shark trade hub,” says Trinidadian environmentalist Marc de Verteuil. “If we were an international ivory trade hub, there would be a greater sense of emergency.”

 

And as some countries decide on whether or when to act, there’s disagreement about how exactly to act. There are reasons to doubt the effectiveness of shark sanctuaries. “Any fishing, especially with nets and longlines, is going to catch sharks and negate the basis of a sanctuary,” says Rachel Graham, a renowned shark researcher and conservationist who founded and runs Belize’s MarAlliance.

Sanctuary legislation mandates the release of incidentally caught sharks. But, says Graham, “fishers usually leave nets and longlines to soak for several hours if not overnight, and there is therefore little chance that most captured sharks or rays will survive. I much prefer a focus on banning the use of certain fishing gears that are really unsustainable, like nets. Or at least restricting their use during certain seasons.”

Graham recommends “some really well-enforced closed seasons, so females can live to give birth and pups have a fighting chance to grow.” She adds: “And the areas where the young pups grow up — called nursery areas, which also benefit many other marine species when they’re young — might be set aside for more stringent protection.” 

The FAO researchers, writing in a report following the Barbados meeting, agree there’s no single way to protect sharks. It will take multiple different actions by each country in the region, making adjustments for the particular conditions in that country. This makes shark conservation in the Caribbean a complicated process. The FAO sets a long-term timeframe of seven to ten years for implementation of the recommendations in the RPOA.

The worry, of course, is the likelihood of irreversible depletion of shark species, harming not only the environment and national economies, but robbing us of learning from and enjoying the presence of these often misunderstood creatures. Part of speeding up the shark conservation process is convincing people that sharks should be treasured, not feared.

“I know people are afraid of them, but they’re amazing,” says Nikola Simpson. “When you see them in the water, it puts everything into perspective. They gracefully glide through the water. They’re beautiful.” 

“Quite often you’re lucky to see a shark,” she adds. “There’s a quote I use sometimes. I can’t remember who it’s by. It says, ‘If you’re in the ocean and you don’t see sharks, you should be afraid.’ If you are diving where you expect to see sharks and you don’t, then you know something is wrong.”

 


Why sharks matter

When most people in the Caribbean think of sharks, they either imagine them as scary predators — thanks to pop-culture depictions like Jaws — or, conversely, as a source of meat. But shark species play a major role in keeping marine ecosystems healthy. At the top of the ocean food chain, sharks help keep fish populations in check. When sharks disappear, other fish species can explode in numbers, throwing things off balance. Other carnivorous fish start to dominate, at the expense of algae-eating fish which keep coral reefs healthy.

There’s another reason to protect sharks in the tourism-dependent Caribbean. Around the world, shark tourism is estimated to earn more than US$300 million per year, as eco-tourists pay to observe and experience sharks in the wild. It’s already a thriving business in the Bahamas, and other Caribbean countries stand to benefit also — if they can keep their shark populations from disappearing.