Why is this Great White Shark smiling?
The long-running tourist slogan has a new meaning for all 40 of the shark species around the Caribbean island chain after the Bahamian government banned all commercial shark fishing in the approximately 243,244 square miles (630,000 square kilometers) of the country’s waters.
What’s good for sharks is good for the Bahamian economy. These big fish bring in about $78 million each year, or more than $800 million over the last 20 years, according to the Bahamas Diving Association — the Bahamas is one of the world’s premier shark-watching destinations for divers.
This latest conservation move adds to a 20-year-old ban on longline fishing gear in Bahamian waters. The prohibition on longline fishing — which often nets sharks along with tuna and other big fish that are the fishers’ main aim — is one reason that sharks are thriving around the Bahamas.
That is not the case elsewhere. Worldwide, shark populations have declined by as much as 70 to 80 percent, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts released last month. Some 30 percent of all shark species are threatened or near-threatened with extinction, and there isn’t enough data to make an accurate assessment of an additional 47 percent of shark species, the report said. Because these ancient fish — they were swimming when dinosaurs roamed the earth — grow slowly, mature late and produce few young over their long lifetimes, they are exceptionally vulnerable to exploitation. Great White sharks have been documented to live 14 years but probably live much longer. Female Great Whites produce two to four live young every year or two, compared with Bluefin Tuna females, who each produce 10 million eggs a year.
The decision by the Bahamas to make its waters a shark sanctuary is the latest of several moves that makes 2011 feel like the Year of the Shark. The island nation joins Palau, the Maldives and Honduras in prohibiting the commercial shark fishing. All told, this means 926,645 square miles (2.4 million square kilometers) of ocean are places where sharks can swim safely.
Keeping sharks safe can also help keep oceans in balance, according to the Pew report. As an apex predator at the top of the marine food web, a vital shark population can make the difference between healthy coral-dominated reefs and barren, algae-dominated ones.
One practice that has taken a stark toll on shark populations is shark-finning – where fishers catch a shark, slice off its fins and then discard the rest of the body at sea, leaving the animal unable to swim. Up to 73 million sharks are killed annually to support the shark fin industry, valued for the Asian delicacy “shark fin soup,” Pew and other conservation groups have said.
The new Bahamas shark sanctuary was the work of a partnership between the Pew Environment Group and the Bahamas National Trust, which began just as a major Bahamian seafood company announced plans to catch sharks and export their fins.
Photo credits: Jim Abernethy; Stuart’s Cove Dive Bahamas