Shark deaths a concern for Cayman researchers

Cayman’s sharks, like this tagged Caribbean reef shark that inhabits the waters off East End, are important apex predators for the local marine environment. – PHOTO: CLAIRE FLETCHER

When there is a shark attack in the Cayman Islands, the victim is invariably the fish.

Killed for ‘sport or out of spite’, four sharks have been found dead in Cayman Islands waters over the past two months.

There is also evidence that a blacktip shark that had been tagged and was being tracked by the Department of Environment as part of a research project was also injured, possibly fatally.

Despite becoming a protected species in the territory since the introduction of the National Conservation Law, sharks continue to be targeted.

Johanna Kohler, a shark research officer with the Department of Environment, said the numbers were actually lower than at the same time last year, when 10 shark deaths had been reported to the department through the end of March.

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She said, “I am happy that it is less than last year but it is still very concerning because sharks are a protected species in the Cayman Islands.”

Kohler said characteristics including slow growth rate, late maturation and relatively low abundance, made sharks extremely vulnerable to fishing pressure, even from accidental catch.

“We are working hard to better understand our local shark population and to conserve them, so it is frustrating to see these crucially important predators being killed for sport or out of spite,” she added.

In one incident from late February on Grand Cayman, a small silky shark became entangled in an abandoned fishing net. Another unidentified shark in Cayman Brac was found on March 15 having been severely cut. Two sharks were found dead in Cayman Brac waters in April – both were lemon sharks. One suffered severe head trauma while another apparently died after being fished from the water and then kicked back into it from the dock.

DoE Shark Project Officer Johanna Kohler tags a blacktip shark in Little Cayman during May 2016. This shark is one of those injured in recent months. – PHOTO: TIM AUSTIN

Two nurse sharks were injured on Grand Cayman during the same period; one was trapped in a fish pot and the other suffered a cut to its side. A blacktip shark that the DoE was tracking in Little Cayman using an acoustic monitor was also injured and its fate remains uncertain at present.

“That blacktip shark was the first shark I tagged when I got to Cayman,” said Kohler. She said the shark was fitted with an acoustic tag and researchers would be monitoring data from the sensor that picks up a signal from the tag, whenever the shark comes within range, to check if it was still alive.

“Shark Conservation Cayman began tracking this shark three years ago and we’ve followed its movements since,” she added.

Kohler said sharks would occasionally be accidentally caught by fishermen. But she urged them to try to reduce the amount of time a shark was on a line and to release them quickly by cutting the hook or the line.

She said it was concerning to see injuries that in some instances appeared to be unrelated to fishing.

“The shark is obviously not everyone’s favourite fish so the incidents where there is a random injury are questionable.”

DoE Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie said there was no excuse for anyone to abuse or torture sharks.

Elasmobranchs, the fish sub-class that includes sharks, stingrays and skates, are protected at all times in the Cayman Islands. Fishing for sharks, selling their fins or meat, or deliberately harming a shark is punishable under the National Conservation Law by a substantial fine and forfeiture of the vessel and equipment used in the offence.

DoE Manager John Bothwell said that despite their fearsome reputation, sharks play a vital role in Cayman’s waters. He said they do not diminish fish populations nor compete with fishermen, but keep fish populations in balance by feeding on weaker, less successful marine specimens and removing them from the breeding stock.

“Healthy sharks in a marine ecosystem are a positive sign of healthy coral reefs and robust fish populations,” Bothwell said. “In recent years, we’ve noted more sharks in the waters around Cayman. That is leading to more interactions with fishermen and an increased number of accidental catch incidents that occur when a shark is attracted by a another struggling fish caught on a line.”

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