Scientists call for better protection for sharks in Caribbean

Tiger sharks are among the migratory sharks species found in the Caribbean Sea. - Photo: Submitted

In a letter in the journal Science this week, marine scientists have appealed for stronger policies to protect threatened migratory marine species, such as sharks, in the Caribbean.

Led by conservation NGO Beneath the Waves, based out of Washington, DC, the diverse group of scientists stated in the letter that the Greater Caribbean has been overlooked in conversations about implementing large marine-protected areas.

In a press release, Beneath the Waves stated, “With up to one-third of all open ocean shark species threatened [with] extinction due to overfishing, conservation strategies that protect areas where sharks spent significant portions of their time are becoming increasingly important. In light of recent calls to protect 30% of our oceans by 2030, large marine protected areas, which can stretch from 100,000 sq. km to over 300,000 sq. km, have emerged as a popular management tool for their potential to enhance ecological processes and promote sustainable fisheries.

“One of the greatest benefits of these large conservation zones is their potential to conserve sharks, which travel long distances and can connect multiple jurisdictions over short time periods.”

Austin Gallagher, chief scientist at Beneath the Waves and one of the co-authors of the Science letter, said in the release, “The diversity of countries sharing ocean space in the Greater Caribbean is remarkable, and we know that migratory shark species connect many of these countries along their migrations. Though there are many examples of establishing marine-protected areas in the region, there are few that are big enough to encompass the space use of large sharks, such as tiger sharks which can move thousands of miles per year.”

He said that as a result of their wide migratory routes, sharks often venture into “risky waters where they can be picked up by commercial fishing operations – or they are commonly killed for local consumption”, adding, “These catches are rarely if ever reported, which is particularly alarming.”

The Cayman Islands’ National Conservation Law, which was enacted in April 2015, provides protection for sharks, and researchers have reported that their data shows the abundance of sharks in Cayman waters is higher than in many parts of the Caribbean.

A partnership between Marine Conservation International and the Cayman Islands Department of Environment led to the creation in 2009 of the Shark Conservation Cayman programme, which helped push for the complete protection of sharks and rays under the National Conservation Law. Under that law, it is illegal to fish for sharks in Cayman waters.

The Beneath the Waves press release noted that recent research suggests that sharks are “surprisingly rare” in many Caribbean nations, likely due to decades of unregulated over-harvesting. However, certain areas such as the Bahamas, which have banned longline fishing and protected sharks in recent decades, have benefitted from the significant socioeconomic inputs generated from live sharks in the diving industry, estimated to be over US$140 million per year.

“It has been amazing to see the push for protected areas worldwide, and in places like the Pacific. But if arresting species decline globally is a priority, then the Caribbean also should be in these discussions. It would be a shame to see the region suffer a similar fate as the Mediterranean, which has no large marine protected areas and virtually no large sharks,” Gallagher said.

“Given that the region relies on healthy oceans for a tourism product, big marine protected areas that engage the local community could be a win-win.”

The letter in Science pointed out that there are 33 large-scale marine protection areas worldwide, but none in the Caribbean Sea. “Although there is a rich history of the establishment of MPAs in the Greater Caribbean, the majority allow fishing and do not take into account the representation of ocean habitats and connectivity required to encompass the space use of migratory species.”

Co-authors of the letter to Science were Diva Amon of the Natural History Museum London, Tadzio Bervoets of the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance, Oliver Shipley of Stony Brook University, Neil Hammerschlag of the University of Miami, and David Sims of the Marine Biological Association of the UK/University of Southampton.

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