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By Larry Smith

Thursday, July 9, 2009.

“I am the shark among the fishes, and the Ganges among the rivers.” --Bhagavad Gita

Well folks, when it comes to sharks - we have some good news and some bad news.

The bad news is that sharks - like most other big fish in the ocean - are not long for this world if we continue overfishing on an industrial-scale.

The good news is that because driftnet and longline fishing are banned in the Bahamas, our shark populations are relatively stable. In fact, National Geographic described Bahamian waters as a relative "Eden" for sharks compared to the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, sharks have always suffered from an image problem. People tend to regard them as serial killers and fishing competitors. But to Aleksandra Maljković, a doctoral student in marine ecology at Canada's Simon Fraser University, they are a fascinating research subject.

"I have been obsessed with sharks since childhood," she wrote during a recent internship at the Bimini Biological Field Station. "My main aim here is to learn as much as possible about handling sharks without losing body parts, so I can pursue my shark-related PhD."

The Bimini training must have been successful, because Maljković appeared perfectly normal at a meeting hosted by the Bahamas National Trust last week where she reported on new shark research at Southwest Point. Maljković is studying the impacts of marine resource depletion on the ecology and behaviour of Caribbean reef sharks.

The Bahamas has a reputation for such research because of its relatively intact shark populations. The Cape Eleuthera Institute launched a shark research programme a year ago. And the Bimini Field Station, operated by venerable University of Miami professor Dr Sammy Gruber, has been studying sharks since 1990.

Gruber took over this mantle from the defunct Lerner Marine Lab, which was set up on Bimini by renowned big game fisherman Michael Lerner in 1948. Lerner used to pal around with Ernest Hemingway and founded the International Game Fishing Association, but he was also a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History and had a passion for marine biology.

The 1930s and 40s were the days when grinning sportfishermen were ritually photographed on piers next to the 500-pound tunas and marlins they had just caught. However, scientists have determined that big ocean fish like these have declined by 90 per cent over the past 50 years.

And it's getting worse. For example, we know that if we keep overfishing at current rates most of the world's commercial fisheries will collapse by mid-century. To understand what that means we have only to consider the once bountiful Canadian cod fishery - which was closed in the early 1990s, with the loss of over 40,000 jobs, and has been unable to recover.

In recent years the overfishing of sharks has become a big problem too. More than 100 million are taken annually by commercial fishermen and another five million by recreational fishermen. As Maljković says, "the trends indicate precipitous population declines in all large-bodied sharks. They are the most threatened species on the planet."

One of the chief reasons for this is the Chinese demand for shark fin soup. Fins can fetch hundreds of dollars, whereas shark meat is worth less than most fish. As a result, fins are cut off of millions of living sharks and the mutilated animals are thrown back into the sea to die - a practice that was banned by the US in 2000.

Sharks are like the lions and tigers of the sea, and scientists like Maljković are trying desparately to understand the ecosystem changes that will occur due to their decline. As top predators, sharks help keep the oceans in balance by controlling other species. To explain this, Maljković cited research showing the unexpected consequences that intense fishing pressure on sharks has produced in different parts of the world.

With fewer large predators in the Atlantic, the number of rays, skates and small shark species has exploded, and these are decimating the populations of other vital marine species. North Carolina, for example, had to close its century-old scallop fishery in 2004 because of over-predation by rays. Similarly, in the Pacific, shark fishing caused a boom in their main prey - octopus - which crashed the spiny lobster fishery in Tasmania.

Scientists like Gruber and Maljković often complain about the popular fear of sharks, which leads many to think it is a good thing to kill them. But the fact is that overfishing of any species benefits no one, least of all the fishermen. And sharks are especially vulnerable because they take so long to reach sexual maturity and only reproduce every couple of years.

Despite our propensity to kill sharks whenever we have the opportunity, the Bahamas generally maintains a good reputation in terms of marine conservation. In a 2007 article, National Geographic pointed out that most of our archipelago remains free of industrial development: "Locals still make a living off Bahamian lobster, snapper, and conch; sportsmen still take bonefish from the sand flats, and marlin and sailfish from the cold 6,000-foot-deep chasm called the Tongue of the Ocean.

"More than 40 sharfk species cruise Bahamian waters," the article continued, "including tigers, lemons, great hammerheads, bulls, blacktips, makos, silkies, nurses; even migrating blues and massive whale sharks pass through. Others live here year-round, giving birth in the same quiet lagoons where they were born."

According to Mike Braynan, director of the Department of Marine Resources, there is no significant commercial shark fishery in The Bahamas: "We have had a line item for sharks in our landing statistics off and on over the years, but usually the amount is zero."

By contrast, shark dive tourism is a multi-million-dollar industry that attracts thousands of visitors and generates tons of publicity every year. It contributes much more to our economy than a dead shark on a fishing boat ever could. In fact, according to Gruber, a single live shark in healthy habitat like the Bahamas is worth as much as $200,000 in tourism revenue over its lifetime.

That's why shark feeding has become such a big part of the local dive industry. And although feeding wild animals is generally frowned upon, Gruber has long been in favour of it where sharks are concerned.

"The reasons are manifold, not the least being the economic value of sharks to the dive industry of the Bahamas. Considering the unremitting commercial slaughter and the bad press that sharks inevitably get these days, any development of a positive image by making divers into ambassadors for shark conservation can only help."

Maljković seems to agree with this view. She told BNT members last week that her recent research at Southwest Point looked into the impacts of feeding on reef shark ecology. With the help of Stuart Cove's dive operation at South Ocean she tagged and observed numbers of sharks, and concluded that dive tourism has negligible impacts on their behaviour.

She also concluded that reef shark conservation efforts would likely have a positive impact on the populations of other marine species, and called for an ecosystem-based approach to marine conservation. This is something that the BNT and other environmental groups have also been pushing for years through the national park system.

Back in the 1980s an assessment of popular dive sites off the southwest coast of New Providence led to the first proposals for a marine park in that area. The idea was revived in the early 2000s during the fight to preserve Clifton as a national heritage park, and the BNT is now working on a formal proposal for the government to consider.

That proposal will be based on information to be collected during a rapid ecological survey scheduled for later this month, as well as from a series of consultations with stakeholders - the people who live near and use the areas that may be included in the proposed reserve. Bahamian marine biologist Vanessa Haley is the BNTs project leader for the Southwest park proposal.

The survey will be conducted by Dr Craig Dahlgren of the Perry Institute for Marine Science along with representatives from the BNT, The Nature Conservancy, the Department of Marine Resources and local fishermen. They will look at the entire southwest portion of New Providence, which includes important nursery habitats in Clifton Bay and Lyford Bay, important aggregation sites around Goulding Cay and east to Clifton Bluff, and multiple sites along South West Reef.

Three stakeholder meetings have already been held, and four more will take place following the survey. "It is extremely important that stakholders and resource users participate in the design and management of this park because the new zoning will affect them all in some way," Haley said 

"There may be areas where traditional line fishing, deep drop fishing and fishing from the land will still be permitted. However, we will continue to enforce no compressor fishing, no longline fishing, no net fishing, no fish pots and no shark fishing. There practices are simply too destructive."

The objective is to protect our natural resources while allowing for non-destructive economic opportunities (like shark dive tourism), as well as recreational and educational opportunities for Bahamians and visitors. A multi-use marine reserve in the southwest has the potential to become a cornerstone of the country's national park system, the BNT says:

"Use of the park will vary depending upon the zoning and the condition of the marine environment," Haley explained. "For example, resource users identified two nursery areas for conch within the proposed park. If confirmed by the ecological survey, these areas will be declared no-take fishery replenishment zones."

Some argue that the entire Bahamas is already a no-take zone for sharks. But this overlooks the fact that - like turtles - sharks don't respect national boundaries. And ongoing coastal development at places like Bimini is destroying critical nursery habitat for these endangered animals.

As the National Geographic puts it: "If the sharks go, so too goes a bountiful ecosystem that feeds local people and keeps outsiders coming back to the islands."

Larry Smith writes a column called "Tough Call" every Wednesday for the Bahamas Nassau Tribune. A former reporter and editor, he now operates a communications agency in Nassau (www.bahamasmedia.com). He also blogs at Bahamapundit.


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