The number of sharks being killed in Cayman’s waters is increasing.
The latest figures from the Department of Environment revealed that, up to Thursday, 26 Aug., 27 dead sharks have been reported, 11 more than the 16 dead animals reported in 2019.
COVID restrictions and lockdown in 2020 meant the DoE logged just one report of a dead nurse shark that year. That count, however, is assumed to be inaccurate.
The most recent carcasses found were mutilated and abandoned on fishing docks, which worries avid diver Steve Broadbelt.
“I really thought this had stopped,” said Broadbelt, co-owner of East End dive operator Ocean Frontiers.
He told the Cayman Compass, “I thought all the awareness had helped. We are coming from a time when fishing companies used to advertise ‘shark catching trips’, and some supermarkets used to sell shark meat. This is a big shock and an even bigger step backwards.”
DoE shark specialist Johanna Kohler said reports of dead sharks were received from all three islands and comprised several different species.
“Caribbean reef sharks are the most common, and then nurse sharks,” said Kohler. “We also had the one unusual dusky smooth-hound shark found. Some of the reports where there was no carcass for us to examine, we don’t know the species. We have also previously had juvenile black tip and lemon sharks caught by fishers in the shallow near-shore water.”
Kohler said the carcasses revealed that the sharks all died after an encounter with people fishing.
Mutilated and left for dead
Earlier this month, the DoE took to social media to report that the fins of a nurse shark were recovered at the Lobster Pot dock in George Town. In that same post, the DoE said two juvenile sharks were also found at a dock in Red Bay.
Kohler said, in some instances, the sharks had been stabbed in the head with a knife, or even had their heads, fins and tails chopped off, while other sharks died due to injuries caused by fishing hooks.
“This is a horrible way to die. For someone to cut the fins from a shark while it is alive and then throw it back into the ocean is cruel and inhumane,” said Broadbelt. “Especially to a defenceless creature like a nurse shark, which does not have any teeth. A stingray is more dangerous.”
Worth more alive than dead
In 2019, the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation estimated that each stingray is worth more than half-a-million dollars a year to the Cayman Islands economy. A similar comparison for sharks does not exist, but Kohler said they are worth more alive than dead.
“Sharks are protected because of their socio-economic and ecological benefits to the islands,” said Kohler. “As key predators, they exert a top-down control. This means they help to keep the balance on our reefs.”
Broadbelt agreed, explaining, “Many people, even those who don’t dive, are keen to come to a country which protects sharks because they know it means the reefs will be healthy,” he said. “I know people fear what they don’t know or understand, but sharks are often more afraid of us than we are of them.”
Harming sharks is illegal
If convicted of killing or harming a shark, a person could be fined up to $500,000, or face imprisonment of two years, as well as lose whatever fishing vessel or equipment they used to commit the crime.
There are signs posted at all public docks stating the law, and the DoE has embarked on numerous campaigns to help bring awareness.
In spite of this, no one has been arrested or charged in relation to any of the shark killings, because the DoE lacks the crucial evidence to identify the perpetrators.
“For the illegal take of marine life, the DoE conservation officers need to catch the activity as it is happening, or have evidence that will stand up in court,” said Kohler. “Which is why we encourage anyone seeing an incident happening to call 911, and the closest officer, DoE or otherwise, will be dispatched.”
Anyone who witnesses a shark being killed or harmed is encouraged to contact the DoE’s conservation team at 916-4271 or email [email protected]