Protecting Sharks Starts With Knowing Where They Are
(Bloomberg) -- One day earlier this summer, Tadzio Bervoets stood on the bow of a boat idling just off the shore of West Caicos, preparing to tag the last shark of the day. He took a moment to center himself before gripping a GoPro camera in his mouth to document the process he calls “walking the dog.”
Armed with leggings, knee pads and orange rubber gloves, he slowly reeled in an 8-foot male lemon shark clinging to a baited circle hook. As the animal surfaced, Bervoets guided it gently towards the boat’s hull, pausing now and then to let the animal thrash and tire itself out. Within just a few minutes, the shark calmed, allowing itself to be secured to the side of the vessel by two more researchers, who looped ropes around its tail and midsection while Bervoets massaged its snout to help it relax.
“A lemon shark can turn around and bite its own tail,” said Bervoets, director of the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance, who’s tagged so many sharks over the years he’s lost count.
Over the next seven minutes, the team worked seamlessly together to measure the shark, outfit it with identification tags for future tracking, and extract tissue samples for further analysis of its diet, the level of toxins in its system, and general health status. They did all this while hanging off the side of a boat and keeping the shark submerged.
This adrenaline-filled data-collection process is a critical part of a recent effort led by the Caribbean Shark Coalition to conserve sharks and rays—not only in Turks and Caicos, but throughout the Caribbean. “Data drives decision-making,” said Bervoets. Historically, he says, a lack of resources and expertise in the region has resulted in a dearth of baseline data about the species, leaving them largely unprotected.
To fill this knowledge gap, Bervoets, who’s from the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Maarten and has worked in marine conservation for more than a decade, formed the Caribbean Shark Coalition last year, along with Austin Gallagher, a marine biologist and chief scientist at ocean conservation group Beneath the Waves. Together, they could take advantage of their networks throughout the U.S. and the Caribbean to help small island nations build up data on their local shark populations, habitats, and migration patterns. With this information, researchers will be able to devise evidence-based recommendations for protecting these species.
“These animals have no idea of political or geopolitical borders,” said Bervoets. That’s why he and Gallagher are advocating that Caribbean nations come together to form large-scale, transboundary marine protected areas across more than 100,000 square kilometers of open water.
Marine protected areas are designated zones of ocean and other coastal ecosystems where fishing and other human activities are restricted in order to promote long-term conservation goals. These include restoring shark and ray populations, which have plummeted by 71% over the past 50 years.
“We know that large marine protected areas are really what are needed in order to properly conserve sharks because sharks have large home ranges,” said Gallagher. Tiger sharks tagged and tracked by the Caribbean Shark Coalition have traveled through as many as nine countries and territories in a year. “We need to understand where those transboundary connections are happening.”
The global fishing industry, estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to be worth $401 billion annually, is primarily at fault for the decline in shark populations. Longline fishing fleets that use thousands of baited hooks to catch tuna and swordfish pose one of the greatest threats to sharks, which end up as accidental bycatch. Ongoing market demand for shark and ray fins and meat also fuels targeted fishing of these apex predators, which play a vital role in maintaining the health of the ocean ecosystem. By preying on animals below them on the food chain, they promote healthy fish stocks and marine habitats such as coral reefs and seagrass beds.
“Once you remove that keystone species, inevitably your ecosystem will collapse to the point even artisanal fishers won’t be able to fish their reefs effectively,” said Bervoets.
The creation of marine protected areas has proven to be an effective tool not only in conserving endangered species like sharks, but also in mitigating certain effects of climate change by allowing carbon-sequestering plants such as mangroves and seagrass to flourish. Global fisheries can also benefit from these protected areas. As healthy fish populations are allowed to grow, they begin to spill beyond their protected boundaries.
“If an MPA is well-designed and well-managed and well-enforced, it can have a really positive impact on the ecosystem, on fish stocks and on fisheries operating outside their protected area,” said Tim White, a fisheries scientist at Global Fishing Watch.
But despite a growing consensus among scientists that 30% of the ocean must be protected by 2030 to conserve biodiversity and promote healthy global fisheries, just under 8% has been set aside. Some of these protected areas may be targeted at conserving specific species. Others may be established as “no take zones,” where all extractive activities are prohibited, including fishing, mining and offshore drilling for oil and gas, though this is rare. Less than 3% of the ocean is protected by such strict measures.
In the Bahamas, for example, the commercial fishing, sale, and consumption of shark products is strictly prohibited; the country’s entire exclusive economic zone was designated as a shark sanctuary in 2011. Since then, it has raked in around $114 million each year from its thriving shark and ray tourism industry. But the Caribbean archipelago can only protect their populations so long as they stay within these protected bounds.
“As soon as that oceanic white tip [shark] leaves their waters, they can be caught in a longline from a fleet fishing in the high seas,” said Jen Sawada, manager for the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy project.
Even if they’re just traveling among bordering territorial waters such as those of the Dutch and French Caribbean islands, they’re at risk. Commercial shark fishing is prohibited in the Dutch Caribbean, which has designated all the waters surrounding Bonaire, Saba, and St. Eustatius as a marine mammal and shark sanctuary. In the French islands, however, there are only seasonal bans on shark-fishing. Many other Caribbean islands — including Trinidad and Tobago, where shark is a traditional menu item — have no shark protections at all, said Bervoets. “On the contrary, it’s still an active fishery.”
The Caribbean is not the only region currently advocating for transboundary protections for sharks. Researchers from conservation nonprofit Ocearch are leading a push in Ecuador and Costa Rica to establish a multinational network of marine protected areas that would encompass an existing marine pathway between the two countries that’s highly trafficked by turtles and sharks.
“You can’t just protect them here and there, and then they are subject to dangers in between,” said Bob Hueter, chief scientist at Ocearch. “We have to work together on an international stage to make any progress in terms of ocean protection, ocean conservation, and ocean restoration.”
In the meantime, collecting data to support the creation of local protections for sharks is critical.
“Local legislation will be a requirement to have any type of international agreements,” said Bervoets. Without such agreements, he says, future transboundary protected areas will be just “paper parks.”
Currently, Turks and Caicos has no legislation protecting its local shark population. Previously proposed legislation that would prevent the commercial sale or export of any shark and ray products, but would not restrict artisanal fishing of sharks for individual consumption, has been at a stand-still for the last seven years, said Amy Avenant, environmental outreach coordinator for the Turks & Caicos Islands Government’s Department of Environment and Coastal Resources.
Now, she’s hoping new data being collected by researchers from Beneath the Waves and the Caribbean Shark Coalition can be used to motivate the government to enact the proposed protective measures.
Researchers have visited the islands five times in the last year to conduct a nationwide survey of local shark and ray populations. In addition to tagging sharks, they’ve used less invasive technology such as environmental DNA analysis of the water, which can be used to determine which types of species have passed through a certain area. And underwater video systems rigged with bait have helped them to document hundreds of hours of live activity on the ocean floor.
Thankfully, Avenant said, the shark population in Turks and Caicos is thriving. “Anyone that’s gone diving here can tell you that when you go out in our waters you’re pretty much guaranteed to see an apex predator,” she says.
And she wants to keep it that way. Foreign enterprises have been known to approach local fishermen throughout the Caribbean, promising them money for sharks. Avenant said she wants to ensure that local protections for sharks are put into place before this becomes a threat to Turks and Caicos.
“We don’t want to fix the problem after it’s a problem.”
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