Saving the Caribbean’s Sharks
As recently as ten years ago, sharks, the apex predator of marine ecosystems, where abundant in Caribbean coastal waters. Over the past several years however, shark encounters while scuba diving, snorkeling and fishing have become a rare occurrence. The depletion of these keystone species is not unique to the Caribbean. Globally, shark populations have suffered rapid decline from over exploitation, threatening the health of coral reef and open ocean ecosystems that they maintain.
To counter this trend, and set an example for the region, in 2011 the St. Maarten Nature Foundation successfully lobbied for a ban on fishing and killing sharks and rays in the territorial waters around St. Maarten. In the last three years the region has seen the implementation of shark conservation action plans in the Bahamas, Honduras and Venezuela.
Through the support of the Dutch Postcode Lottery, the Dutch Caribbean can lead the way with the establishment of a regional shark sanctuary that includes the largest submerged coral reef atoll in the world, the Saba Bank and the entire Dutch Exclusive Economic Zone.
Public support for shark conservation is critical for the successful awareness, policy, legislation and regulations. Therefore, the largest component of this project would be a global communication and outreach campaign promoting the conservation of Caribbean sharks. This campaign would include, but not be limited to: a feature film documentary of sharks of the Saba Bank and the neighboring Dutch Caribbean Islands; a satellite tagging component where researchers, scientists, educators and the general public are able to track shark migration real-time around the region islands, this can also include a ‘name your shark project’; a “virtual shark experience” housed at the marine park management organizations of the Dutch Caribbean; and the development of shark observation mobile device application.
Sharks are seen globally as a charismatic species and their plight has garnered much global attention, however when it comes to shark sanctuaries and participation of an organization such as NPL and its clients would make this one of the most unique collaborations for the conservation of an apex predator thus far, not only regionally but also globally.
Sharks, as apex predators, regulate the natural balance of our ocean ecosystems.
By hunting old, weak or sick prey, they enable only the more naturally fit animals to reproduce and thereby keep the prey population in good condition.
Throughout the world, sharks are playing an increasingly important role in island economies as an important natural attraction for eco-based recreation and tourism. A recent study has shown that a single shark can represent an average touristic resource value of US$ 2.64 million. Consequently, shark protection is taking flight around the world, including the Caribbean.
The Dutch Caribbean Save Our Sharks Project encompasses all six islands of the Dutch Caribbean. They are poised to benefit from a new funding initiative provided by the Dutch Postcode Lottery aimed at an essential conservation effort—saving and protecting shark species. The fund will provide €1.6 million to the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA) to assist with the effort of shark conservation on all six islands of the Dutch Caribbean; Saba, Sint Eustatius, Sint Maarten, Curacao, Aruba and Bonaire. The Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA) is a nonprofit organization created to protect the environment and promote sustainable management of natural resources on the six Dutch Caribbean islands.
The Save our Sharks effort in the Caribbean may be the first to attempt a concerted regional approach in the global endeavor to save sharks and is one of the five major shark conservation projects running globally.
Conservation organizations worldwide are focusing on preserving sharks, which we now know are some of the most endangered species on the planet. Science has described at least 500 species of sharks but many species, which have existed since the time of the Dinosaurs, face increasing human-related threats and, for some species, extinction.
The demand for fins and other shark products has driven a number of species close to extinction. More than 100 million sharks are killed each year as a result of fishing and shark finning activities, twice the rate at which they can reproduce. Sharks are especially vulnerable to overfishing and slow to recover from depletion because they are late to mature and produce few young.
All of the Dutch Islands aim to have a level of shark conservation in place at the end of the three year project: “Sharks are some of the most misunderstood species on the planet. For generations we have been led to believe that sharks are the villains of the seas and that they pose a danger to everything that swims in the ocean, including humans. But we now know that is very far from the truth; these magnificent creatures are essential to the ocean, and therefore essential to us as islanders because of our intimate connection with the sea. Without sharks we lose that which makes our islands so unique; our marine habitats. That is why we have embarked on this journey with the Dutch Postcode Lottery and our other partners, a journey of protecting these keystone species on all of the six-islands in the Dutch Caribbean,” (Tadzio Bervoets, Vice-chair of DCNA and Chair of the Save our Sharks Project Committee).
As of March 13th, 2017 there is "great news for shark conservation in the Caribbean. It was officially decided to protect eight shark species under the international Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol following a proposal by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs in cooperation with a team of shark experts. The SPAW protocol is the only cross-border legislative instrument for nature conservation in the Wider Caribbean Region." (Click here for link to full Story)
Irene Kingma, director of the Dutch Elasmobranch Society (DES) and one of the shark experts that helped with the shortlist: “Sharks do not respect borders and cover enormous distances, which is why it is important to protect them on a region-wide scale. The proposals from the Dutch Ministry have helped providing these fragile species with the protection they deserve, which we consider a great success.”
Kalli De Meyer, DCNA’s executive director, also stressed the importance of protecting these critical species;
“People need healthy oceans and healthy oceans need sharks, the apex predator of the ocean,”