The Department of Environment is asking the public to weigh in on measures to help protect sharks in the waters off the Cayman Islands.
Protecting sharks is vital not just for conservation reasons, but because they also have an impact economically, a recently completed study has shown.
According to the study by the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, sharks may be worth between $80 million and $130 million a year to the territory.
“This project has been quite important to get a better handle to understand what is happening with the whale and shark populations,” said Tim Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment.
As part of the study, sharks were tagged and tracked and the sharks became the focus of the study, which showed their numbers in local waters were “not optimal”, he said.
“We are focusing mainly on the shark population due to their importance to the tourism industry and their importance to a healthy marine environment … Apex predators are not only a good indicator of a healthy marine environment, but are also essential to maintaining that environment,” Mr. Austin said.
In 2009, the Department of Environment began investigating the value of sharks, rays, whales and dolphins to Cayman, both economically and ecologically, as part of a study called the Cayman Shark and Dolphin Project.
The study sought to find out what species were present in local waters, which species were being threatened, the migratory and other behaviour of these creatures and their direct and indirect economic value to Cayman.
Now that the study is complete, the next step is to recommend policies to protect these species in Cayman and as part of that, a public consultation questionnaire is available.
Mr. Austin acknowledged that sharks had a undeserved bad reputation and that some fishermen still considered them dangerous and a nuisance and kill them either incidentally because they interfere with their fishing or fish them. An education and awareness programme to try to convince these fishermen of the importance of releasing any sharks they catch would be undertaken, he said.
Lizy Gardner, who is writing a thesis based on the study and who has been working with the Department of Environment, explained: “These animals are highly valuable to Cayman’s economy if they’re used nonconsumptively, that is without harming them.”
According to the study, the total value of the sharks per year in the tourism and recreation industry in Cayman is estimated to be as high as US$80 million and their indirect value in maintaining the health of the marine environment may be US$40 million a year. Diving tourists taking part in a survey as part of the study said they were willing to pay on average US$455 per one-week trip to a destination where sharks are likely to be seen.
The study has come up with four options for conserving shark populations locally. These include providing full protection of rays, sharks, dolphins and whales within Marine Protected Areas; making Little Cayman a safe zone for these animals; or extending full protection to all sharks, ray, whales and dolphins throughout Cayman waters or at least within 12 nautical miles from shore.
Mr. Austin admitted that extending the marine parks, in which sharks and all other marine life are protected, may not be the ultimate answer as the tracking of the sharks had shown that various species were very mobile and travelled long distances well outside the protected zones. For example, tiger sharks were observed travelling, on average, between 11 and 24 miles a day, while oceanic white tips can travel 88 miles a day.
The tagging and tracking of the sharks have shown that the sharks are travellers. “White tips have gone shooting off all over the Caribbean, one has gone out into the Atlantic. The tiger sharks range all the way to … Cuba, Roatan and came back to Cayman for a bit and hung around. The reef sharks, we thought they had a relatively small home range for an species that size and we were very surprised to find tagged reef sharks from the eastern district of Grand Cayman making a direct path to Little Cayman and Cayman Brac,” Mr. Austin said.
Although the local population of sharks is not as high as the researchers may have hoped, this is likely not the lowest the population has been because Cayman had a shark fishing industry in the 1930s and 1940s during which 10,000 shark hides a year were exported. Mr. Austin said at that time, the sharks were under a greater level of exploitation and threat than they are now.
Sharks are protected under various international covenants, such as CITES, but there are no local laws protecting sharks, rays, dolphins or whales outside of the marine parks in the Cayman Islands.
With the help of funding from Caybrew’s White Tip lager sales, tagging of the sharks will continue after the completion of the study, Mr. Austin said.
The study was not able to definitively show which species were most at risk, but Mr. Austin said there was no doubt that oceanic white tip sharks and pelagic [living in the open ocean] sharks were subject to unregulated fishing and were under “a huge threat”.
However, the nurse shark is also being threatened. “The shark that’s under a lot of pressure is the nurse shark because of its ability to be easily hooked. People are not really frightened of it,” said Mr. Austin, who said that nurse sharks will often get into fishing pots and go after fishing lines and are hooked by fishermen who dispose of them.
The questionnaire is available on the Department of Environment website and those who wish to fill it out are urged to do so by mid-September, although the deadline for completion of the forms may be extended, depending on the response.