In July 2011 the Bahamas joined a small group of nations in becoming a shark sanctuary. With the global shark population in decline, conservationists are hoping others will follow suit.
Depicted as a merciless, penguin-chewing, surfer-chasing serial killer, the shark will never be the first in line for public sympathy. Now, though, it needs it more than ever. Having roamed the waters for 400 million years, the global shark population is plunging. Today the International Union for Conservation of Nature says around 30 per cent of the world’s shark and ray species are threatened with extinction.
The reasons are several. Industrial fishing has increased in the past 60 years, with shark fins, meat and liver oil very much in demand. A major driving force is shark fin soup, a delicacy in Asia. ‘Shark finning’ has become widespread – the act of catching a shark, cutting off its fins and discarding the body. The shark’s life history is not helpful either: it grows slowly, matures late and produces few offspring. This makes it prone to overfishing and slow to recover from mass declines. With tens of millions of sharks killed each year, it is no wonder it is in trouble.
To help turn the trend, conservationists are hoping nations will follow the example of the Bahamas. In July 2011 it banned commercial shark fishing from its territorial waters. It also prohibited all trade, import and export of shark products. That enabled the 700-island state, located south-east of Florida, north of Cuba, to safeguard its many species: nurse shark, black tip shark, lemon shark, bull shark, tiger shark, great hammerhead shark, Caribbean reef shark. It remains one of the world’s healthiest shark populations.
The move made sense to the Bahamas. Tourism makes 60 per cent of what has traditionally been a strong economy, and employs roughly half of the country’s 320,000 inhabitants. Besides tropical temperatures and sandy beaches, the shark is among its chief exports: around 90 per cent of members of The Bahamas Dive Association offer some form of shark diving. “Sharks were contributing tremendously to our nature tourism,” says Eric Carey, executive director of the Bahamas National Trust, an NGO responsible for conserving the country’s natural areas. “We were making a lot of money off them. And you can only do that if you have healthy populations.”
There had never been an industry for shark fishing at the islands. A ban on longline fishing gear some 20 years ago was the only previous legislation related to it. But in 2009, alarm bells were set ringing. The Global Shark Conservation Project, a scheme run by the Pew Charitable Trust, a global non-profit NGO, had gathered intelligence that an Asian shark fishing company sought to set base in the Bahamas. They alerted the Bahamas National Trust. “This was never a problem in the Bahamas,” says Carey. “We never had a shark fishery. In fact we don’t even eat sharks. But this interest had set off a red light.”
The two bodies came together and mounted a campaign. They met government leaders, fishery and environmental ministers, and rallied public support. In other nations, a decision to restrict fishing would usually upset scores of fishermen – an influential interest group. Not here. “There is not a culture there of eating shark, and there is no market for trading its fins,” says Liz Karan, manager of the Global Shark Conservation Project. “It had just started to reach there when the shark ban came.”
The campaign was backed by figures showing the shark’s value. Numbers from the Bahamas Diving Association, from 2008, suggested shark related tourism had contributed more than £500million ($800million) to the national economy over the past two decades. To supplement that, figures from the Shark Specialist Group, from 2002, showed that a single reef shark generates £157,000 ($250,000) during its lifetime. Dead, it is worth less than £100 ($160). The ban was signed into law in July 2011 by Lawrence S. Cartwright, the agriculture and fisheries minister, protecting 630,000 square kilometres (243,000 square miles) of territorial water. “It was not a difficult decision for our government to make,” Carey says.
But the shark story is less rosy elsewhere. Outside of nationally protected waters, on the so-called ‘high seas’, which are managed by the Regional Fisheries Management Organisation, no legislation on shark fishing exists. Even in national waters, laws are inconsistent. “A large number of shark species migrate long distances, so you’re talking about an animal that will cross national and international boundaries,” says Ali Hood, director of conservation at The Shark Trust. “Therefore many species require international level management and protection.” At the moment, she adds, “there is no effective international management for sharks”.
Conservationists keep working behind the scenes. The Global Shark Conservation Project is talking to nations of Micronesia, a subregion of islands located east of the Philippines, about becoming shark sanctuaries. In doing so they could join Palau, Maldives Honduras, Tokelau, the Marshall Islands, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia – and the Bahamas. The project is also lobbying the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – a 177-nation-strong international legislative protective body – which gathers in Bangkok in early March. They want three shark species to get more protection: the scalloped hammerhead shark, the porbeagle shark and the oceanic whitetip shark. “It is the only way to protect them as a vulnerable species,” Karen says.
Photos: Matthew Connolly, FAUP, Grep Amptman’s Undersea Discoveries [all via Shutterstock.com].