Life’s Better in the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary
You have likely heard it somewhere before, an impressive piece of information shared tirelessly and sometimes incorrectly attributed to the impacts of shark finning only: “100 million sharks are killed every year.” Although this is an alarming number, it’s actually more factual to look at the range from the larger study estimating exploitation rates of sharks: 63 million – 273 million sharks killed annually. One hundred million is thus a conservative estimate, and the shark fin trade is not fully responsible for those landings. Data aside, the more important question now is what can we do about these losses?
The answer may partially lie in the Bahamas. Before the study mentioned above even came out, the island nation made a progressive choice by fully protecting its sharks from fishing in 2011. Bahamians had put two and two together: many shark species in their waters live there either partially or year-round, and these sharks are worth big bucks alive – a 2007 estimate of $78M US in the Bahamas alone. The Bahamas is one of the best places in the Caribbean and arguably the world to dive with sharks, which might not be the case if populations were under high fishing pressure.
Dr. Demian Chapman, a marine biologist and shark expert formally at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and now at Florida International University’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education leads a global study of sharks and rays called Global FinPrint. It is a project that partially stems from the 2013 study by asking some of the next most valuable questions including: where on the world’s coral reefs do we find many sharks and rays and why are they there? The project sets GoPro cameras on the seafloor to estimate shark and ray abundance and diversity. So far, the Bahamas has been one of the leaders in this study (see video), with sharks and rays on almost every survey, including several with endangered great hammerheads. This project along with a tagging expedition in its fourth year have certainly made life better for sharks in the Bahamas, thanks to Louis Bacon’s Moore Bahamas Foundation.
The Bahamas has emerged as a leader in shark conservation, and the sanctuary could be a model to replicate for countries looking to protect their sharks and boost their economy. Extending this same protection to rays, the lesser-known cousins of sharks who play their own vital roles in the ocean’s ecosystem, would make sense. The Bahamas is one of the few places on earth where you can find the critically endangered smalltooth sawfish, a ray that is often confused with a shark. Their populations have seen about a 95% decline since the 1960s. Yet these sawfish are not granted protection in the country, nor are the other species of rays that could bring in even more tourism money. It is the belief of Global FinPrint that the Bahamas can take the next innovative step to make them a world leader in shark and ray conservation by granting rays full protection.
Katie Flowers is the volunteer social media and research assistant for Global FinPrint and a recent graduate of Stony Brook University’s Marine Conservation & Policy Masters program. She is interested in batoid movements and conservation as well as scientific communication.
Demian Chapman is an Associate Professor at Florida International University and the lead scientist for Global FinPrint. His work in the Bahamas is funded by the Moore Bahamas Foundation.