I had the opportunity to address a group of Caribbean leaders at a Pew Charitable Trust event in the Bahamas this weekend, and discussed the importance of creating safe havens and protection for sharks.
The Caribbean has long been my home. Its people, beaches, beautiful waters and amazing marine wildlife make me thankful every day that I get to spend so much time in this wonderful part of the world.
What strikes me frequently is how wonderfully balanced nature is….when we let her be. One creature’s habits and life affects another. If you take a species away, there is always a knock on effect. If you add a species – an invasive – the same is usually true. The effects on the natural wildlife and systems can be devastating, and often near impossible to reverse.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been part of an initial tagging trip in the British Virgin Islands but we need more information on the mating and migration patterns of sharks found here. Having been part of the BVI shark sanctuary initiative, I also recognise the importance of creating safe havens for these creatures where they can mate and swim without threat of being hunted for their meat, cartilage or fins.
We are always looking for balance and how to restore balance. I was interested to find out more about relationship between coral and sharks and discovered that when we overfish sharks, the coral also suffers.
By removing the top predators in a reef ecosystem, we upset the natural food web. This then changes the composition of the reef. Fewer sharks in the water means less healthy coral and consequently, less fish. That affects food security, the health of the ocean and tourism dollars.
Despite their ecologic and economic value, populations are declining at an alarming rate. Sharks are long-lived, mature late, and produce few young making them especially vulnerable.
As a businessman I understand the value of long-term investment; measuring the worth of your assets in the future. In simple terms, sharks have more value alive and free – as seen by a study showing that a live reef shark in Palau is worth $1.9 million over its lifetime for the tourism industry, compared with a one-time value of $108 if it is killed for its fins.
While events like the one Pew kindly organised are extremely useful for building great momentum, there is a long, long way to go to protect sharks. In 2013, the Caribbean Challenge Initiative (CCI) communique called for protection of sharks and stingrays across the Caribbean region with the aim to protect all of them within two years. We need to follow up on that call to action.
I urged the leaders of countries both present at the weekend and those that were invited but were unable to attend to follow the BVI and the Bahamas example, and move to declare their waters as sanctuaries for sharks and rays.
The more national sanctuaries we can create, the better the chances are for linking areas of national protection and as a groundswell for further international protection on the high seas too.
Today, with roughly 30 per cent of shark species threatened or nearly threatened with extinction, and around 100 million sharks killed each year in commercial fisheries around the globe, we all need to step up to protect these beautiful species both for their sake – and for a healthy ocean.
Update: I am delighted to report that three of the representatives at the meeting have since made a commitment to deliver their own shark and ray sanctuaries – Saba, Sint Maarten in the Caribbean, and Samoa in the Pacific.
These are potentially huge areas of waters and represent a groundswell of shark protection in two regions that are making strides in marine conservation. I look forward to seeing these in place and hope other countries will soon follow their lead.