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Published in Fly Fishing in Salt Waters, March/April 2011 Issue

TROUBLE IN EDEN

Shark finning in the Bahamas could destroy its extraordinary fisheries

Most flyfishers that have logged time in The Bahamas have had the unpleasant experience of a shark attacking a bonefish at some point during the fight, or have witnessed an exhausted bonefish become an easy meal just after the release.   It can be disappointing, but don’t hate the sharks.  The reality is that sharks may actually play a critical role in assuring a continuing abundance of Bahamian bonefish.   

There’s plenty of research that shows how sharks help maintain an important balance in complex and fragile ecosystems.  Sharks fill a vital role in regulating the variety and abundance of the species below them in the food chain, helping to maintain the health of marine habitats, including seagrass beds, coral reefs etc.  There’s been some fairly recent work showing that without sharks regulating fish that feed on herbivorous species, such as parrotfish, algae increases to the point where turbid, nutrient-rick water chokes living reefs.  Under such circumstances, healthy flats ecosystems that bonefish frequent would likely turn into murky habitats that support neither a diversity of species nor an abundance of individual organisms. 

A decline in shark abundance can and has resulted in broad, negative cascading effects throughout various marine ecosystems.  One recently documented example can be seen in the northwest Atlantic where sharks have declined to the point that there are no longer enough of them to keep the cownose ray population in check.  After an ever-increasing number of cownose rays invaded coastal shellfish beds, North Carolina’s bay scallop population collapsed and with it, an important commercial fishery virtually disappeared.  In my neck of the woods, rays are sometimes so thick you simply can’t fish for stripers without hooking into one of these 50-pound cinderblocks.  Quite frankly they’ve become a nuisance, and I can only imagine what they are doing to the forage base.  The point is that the decline in shark populations can lead to unpredictable consequences, including in some cases the collapse of commercially and recreationally important fisheries.  

Unfortunately, in most areas of the world, sharks are in trouble.  Their life histories, which include slow growth, late maturation and production of few offspring, make them far more vulnerable to overfishing than other commercially viable species and they are very slow to recover from a decline. 

In recent decades Asian markets for shark-fins have exploded.  The fins, which have little nutritional value or much in the way of taste, are used for shark fin soup, a delicacy in China and Japan.  In East Asian culture, shark fins are considered an aphrodisiac, despite the lack of any scientific evidence to support such claims. Shark-fin soup is also one of the most expensive foods in the world, which has given it a status that, of itself, compels its consumption.   In places such as China, shark-fin soup could once only be afforded by the elite, but the growing, status-conscious middle-class in that country has driven up demand.  There is some evidence that suggests that that the shark’s decline is proportional to the rise of the Chinese middle class. 

The practice of finning, where sharks are caught, their fins lopped off, and the rest of the fish dumped and left to starve to death on the bottom of the ocean floor is considered by some to be cruel and barbaric.  Regardless, the killing of an animal to use less than 5% of the animal's body is just not ecologically sound.   The species simply can’t sustain the mortality. 

The Bahamas is one of the last locations around the world that still has healthy, biologically diverse shark populations and is regarded by shark researches and divers worldwide as a treasure. National Geographic, in a cover story, described The Bahamas as an "Eden for Sharks".   Some scientists speculate that that the Bahamas may even serve as a "pupping" ground and shark reservoir for the wider region and may contribute substantially to maintaining viable shark stocks in surrounding nations where they are killed in their millions for fins.  Undoubtedly this is because the country had the uncommon foresight and wisdom to ban longlines about 20 years ago, and now there simply isn’t a commercial market for sharks there.  Not yet anyway.  

Now shark populations in the Bahamas could very well be in trouble.  A seafood export company currently harvesting sea cucumbers for the Chinese recently made public its intent to expand its North Andros operations to include shark-finning.   

While the longline ban is still on the books, there is no particular law protecting sharks in the Bahamas from finning.  Given difficult economic times and a significant reduction in tourism revenue as well as some alleged economic trade agreements between China and The Bahamas, without prompt action from the Bahamian Government, a devastating shark-fin fishery will likely develop, mainly for export to China.

If such a market does come to pass, it will certainly affect the extraordinary fishery the Bahamas is known for.  Both inshore and offshore fisheries will feel the effects.  Current Bahamian laws allow “short” longlines with as many as 10 hooks per line.  If shark-fin markets are opened up, the commercial fishing industry will push for greater leeway.  Once livelihoods are associated with a fishery it can be very difficult to resist efforts to further expand.  It’s possible we’d see the ratcheting up of the number of hooks and length of longlines until the current ban is effectively overruled.  The government may well yield to industry efforts and remove the longline ban all together.   And with the growth of longlining, we would see a corresponding decline in the abundance of recreationally valuable pelagics such as tunas, billfish and mahi. 

The Bahamian Government should flatly stop any development of a shark fishery for economic reasons alone.  According to a Bahamas Diving Association survey, shark related tourism in The Bahamas over the past 20 years has contributed more than $800 million to the Bahamian economy.  A single reef shark is estimated to be worth $250,000 over its lifetime for tourism if kept alive on the reef (and this doesn’t account for all the money recreational fishing brings in).  The same shark generates a one-time value of $50-$60 for its fins.  For a country that depends on fishing and dive tourism, allowing shark finning market to develop would have severe ecological and economic consequences.

One only has to look at what has happened in other parts of the world where East Asian companies have set up shark fin centers.  In Central America, where large Taiwanese fishing fleets and local fin exporting companies exist in combination, sharks have been seriously depleted in only a few years.  Once sharks disappear from one region the companies simply pick up and move on to another, leaving small-scale fishermen and local economies devastated. 

In light of the impending  threat of a commercial shark finning operations opening up shop in the Bahamas, several conservation groups are pushing for a comprehensive set of regulations that would encompass the prohibition of commercial fishing of sharks, the prohibition of the export of shark meat and fins, and the prohibition of selling shark products.

Larry Cartwright, the Bahamas Fisheries' minister recently indicated the country's healthy shark populations should be protected. "We don't have a position on it yet, or any legislation to govern that right now," he stated. "But as a former fisherman, I think sharks need to be protected; all marine species do, they all serve a purpose.”   Yet he followed that statement saying "I wouldn't say shark finning is not going to happen here because what's happening elsewhere I am sure will come this way eventually, and when the time comes we will look into legislation."

Once shark finning gets into the Bahamas, the legislators will spend weeks or months debating the matter, while hundreds, maybe thousands of sharks are killed in their waters.  In light of recent developments,  permanent protections for sharks should be considered by Bahamian Government officials now.  By establishing comprehensive protections for sharks, not only will sharks be permanently safeguarded, but the marine ecosystem and the economy of The Bahamas will be much better served.

You can let your views known by signing the online petition at this address: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/549/487/335/ .