Cayman marks decade of shark conservation

This year marks the 10th anniversary of a collaboration between Cayman’s Department of Environment and the UK-based Marine Conservation International aimed at protecting sharks in local waters.

Part of the work being carried out involves gathering data on the shark populations found in Cayman. According to researchers, the findings are hopeful.

“Our data suggest the overall abundance of sharks in Cayman Islands’ waters is currently higher than in most of the Caribbean,” said Marine Conservation Co-Director, Mauvis Gore, a professor at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. “However, the numbers are not quite as high as in a few places – such as Bahamas and Belize – where sharks have been protected for longer periods.”

The partnership between Marine Conservation International and the DoE led to the 2009 creation of the Shark Conservation Cayman programme, which was initially called Cayman Islands Large Marine Predator Programme. The programme helped push for the complete protection of sharks and rays under the Cayman Islands National Conservation Law, which took effect in April 2015, making it illegal to fish for sharks and stingrays in Cayman waters.

According to Gore, large-bodied sharks, such as reef sharks, nurse sharks, hammerheads and tiger sharks, all of which are found in Cayman’s coastal waters, have significant tourism value – between US$46 million and US$63 million per year.

“Scientists also theorise that sharks, as top marine predators, can help protect coral reefs via a ‘cascade’ effect within the food chain,” a press release from the DoE stated.

“Simply put, sharks will eat a certain number of mid-level predators that feed on smaller, herbivorous reef fish,” said DoE-MCI Shark Project Officer Johanna Kohler. “This, in turn, regulates the number of fish that eat algae from reef areas, keeping them clear for coral growth.

“We believe there is a correlation between a healthy shark population and healthier coral reefs.”

Members of the Marine Conservation International/DoE team, including Professor Mauvis Gore, centre, lean overboard to place an acoustic tag on a shark. – Photo: DoE

The researchers said that, over the past 10 years, there appears to have been a change locally in people’s reactions towards sharks, with fishermen less likely to kill sharks when they come across them.

“To some extent, the attitude in Cayman toward sharks has changed over the past decade. Shark Conservation Cayman has spent a lot of time in local classrooms and talking to local fishermen about these crucial marine species,” Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the DoE, said. “Ten years ago, the prevalent view of sharks was ‘if you see one, kill it.’ I believe that people today have a better understanding of why sharks are important to us.”

Kohler said contrary to some beliefs, sharks “do not ‘steal’ marine stocks from local fishers”.

“Rather, we’ve observed they tend to bolster the numbers and health of reef fish by protecting them from mid-level predators and also by weeding out some less successful specimens, keeping the weaker ones from reproducing,” she said.

Tracking sharks

Kohler, a Ph.D. student from Germany, has partnered with DoE and MCI scientists for the last three years in Cayman, performing biannual shark surveys using Baited Remote Underwater Video cameras, which allow scientists to record sharks in their natural environment without the animals having to interact with humans.

Shark Conservation Cayman has also placed tracking devices on more than 50 local sharks over the past 10 years, allowing the scientists to track their movements via acoustic monitoring.

A reef shark passes by a monitoring station as a nurse shark, bottom, takes a closer look at the Baited Remote Underwater Video equipment. – Photo: DoE

The tracking data available tends to show that many Caribbean shark species have a range of more than 6.2 miles. “This suggests that, to be provided with adequate protection, shark species require marine protected areas on the scale of Cayman’s recent marine parks enhancement to be put in place throughout the Caribbean,” Gore said.

“When we started the shark project 10 years ago, the DoE identified this area as one where we needed to improve our scientific data collection and research,” Ebanks-Petrie said. “Now, thanks to this partnership, we have much better information available to help protect these ecologically and economically important predators.”

She added, “There is still so much we don’t know for certain about sharks in our waters. We believe more time and diligent study on this project will provide more valuable insights.”

Over the years, Shark Conservation Cayman has been the recipient of three Darwin Initiative grants from the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). It has also received donations from local brewery Caybrew via sales of its ‘White Tip’ brand, and support from the Save our Seas Foundation, Foster’s Food Fair, the Southern Cross Resort and Ocean Frontiers.

Project collaborators in the scientific community include Edd Brooks of Cape Eleuthera Institute, Prof. John Turner of Bangor University, Prof. Callum Roberts of the University of York, Mahmood Shivji of Nova Southeastern University, and Guy Harvey of the G

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