March 14, 2012

Reef Check Spotlight: Shark Conservation in The Bahamas

Caribbean reef shark, Carcharhinus perezii swims just beneath the surface at Amberjack Reef, Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.
Photo credit: Krista D. Sherman 2011.

By Krista Sherman, GEF FSP Coordinator, Bahamas National Trust

Sharks are an extremely diverse group of marine animals that can be found in various habitats worldwide. Sharks belong to the class Chondrichthyes, subclass Elasmobranchii that contains 12 orders of which three are extinct and 1100 species have been described3. Chondrichthyes are cartilaginous fish characterized by the presence of five or more gill slits, paired fins, a true jaw and nostrils3. There are approximately 500 shark species ranging in size from the 27cm pygmy shark Euprotomicrus bispinatus to the 21m whale shark Rhincodon typus. Collectively, sharks have played an instrumental role in marine ecosystems for over 400 million years as evidenced by fossil records of the Devonian and possibly lower Silurian2. However, because of their K-selected life history strategy (i.e. slow maturation and reproduction, producing few viable offspring) and increasing anthropogenic pressures they are extremely vulnerable and susceptible to overexploitation. Some estimates report that global shark populations have declined by as much as 80% within the last 20 years1. Additionally, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Shark Specialist Group (SSG) lists 30% of shark and ray species as threatened or near threatened with extinction4,5.

Increased awareness about the impact of global shark fisheries, habitat destruction and the combined effects this will have on the marine environment and economy has improved collaborations between scientists, conservationists and government officials. The Bahamas National Trust (BNT), established in 1959, is mandated with conserving both natural and historic resources in The Bahamas and is the only non-governmental organization in the world mandated to manage a country’s entire national park system. BNT’s vision is to create a comprehensive system of national parks and protected areas, with every Bahamian embracing environmental stewardship. This vision has driven and continues to drive the organization to establish new parks, engage in community outreach and promote conservation, education and research in The Bahamas.

Bahamian shark populations are relatively healthy when compared to other parts of the world, which is due in part to the 1990s longline commercial fishing ban. However, to ensure that shark populations within The Bahamas remain healthy, in 2010 BNT partnered with the PEW Environment Group to launch a national “Protect the Sharks of The Bahamas” campaign to ban the commercial sale and trading of sharks and shark products within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

The campaign launched in May 2010 with participants including government officials, representatives from NGOs, scientists, dive tour operators, conservationists, media and other key stakeholders. The benefits of maintaining diverse and abundant shark populations to sustain healthy ecosystems and the associated economic benefits through dive-related tourism (valued at approximately $78 million per annum to the Bahamian economy) were highlighted. BNT partnered with PEW and local NGOs to raise public awareness on the global status of sharks through education and outreach programmes. A series of presentations, public meetings, community walk-throughs and outreach through social network forums and the media occurred during 2010-2011. More than 5,600 Bahamians signed handwritten petitions asking the government to “prohibit commercial fishing and selling of any shark or shark related products within the Commonwealth of The Bahamas”. In July 2011, the Bahamian Government created an amendment to the Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) Act (Chapter 244) to prohibit commercial shark fishing along with the sale, importation and export of shark products within 630,000 km2 (243,244 mi2) of its waters6. This marked another huge accomplishment for The Bahamas, which now protects over 40 known shark species. Shelley Cant, BNT shark campaign manager stated, “This new legislation has established The Bahamas as the regional leader for shark conservation”.

Decades of scientific research on sharks in The Bahamas has been used to assess their diversity and abundance and address deficiencies pertaining to their life history characteristics, diet, behaviour and distribution. Continued advancements in research combined with local capacity building, fisheries regulation enforcement and improved public awareness will lead to better conservation management. An ecosystem based approach will undoubtedly be most effective to sustain the diversity and function of sharks within marine ecosystems.

1. Ambros P. 1998. WWF Efforts to save sharks from extinction. Marine Pollution Bulletin 36:321.
2. Carrier J.C., Musick J.A., Heithaus M.R. (eds) 2004. Biology of sharks and their relatives. Boca Raton, Fl.: CRC Press 596p.
3. Compango L., Dando M., Fowler S. 2005. A field guide to sharks of the world. London: Collins 368p.
Community outreach activity for the shark campaign. Photo credit: Shelley Cant.