Dr Austin Gallagher is the chief scientist of Beneath the Waves – a non-profit organisation working to conserve, protect and restore the health of the ocean.
Dr Gallagher invited me to join his team of researchers, creatives, entrepreneurs and change-makers which meant I ended up having a front row seat to some serious shark action. I would soon see first-hand what it is to engage so closely with this majestic animal – part superhero, part destroyer.
I observed as Gallagher arranged weights and buoys on the deck of the boat in preperation our first day of research together. The goal? To find, catch, tag, sample and then release as many sharks as possible.
“Sharks are one of the most threatened groups of animals on the planet,” says Gallagher. He is completely dedicated to protecting shark species and is brimming with excitement at the prospect of encounters with Caribbean reef sharks, tiger sharks, and hammerheads – all in the crystal clear waters off Great Exuma Island, Bahamas.
“I’ve travelled the world and no place compares to the Bahamas in terms of shark diversity and abundance. It is the ideal place to study what the oceans should look like with healthy shark populations,” he says.
While so many people have a terrible fear of shark attacks, it’s humans that kill over 100 million sharks every year (through by-catch or for meat and fins). Instead of being feared, they should be celebrated, since this apex predator is important to keeping balance in healthy marine systems.
Sharks are highly migratory and hard to track, which results in a lack of data and little-to-no management of shark populations. Without immediate action many of the world's sharks face global extinction in the coming decades. Dr Gallagher and his colleagues are committed to changing that path.
During our expedition we’d throw ten baited hooks out, cruise to a waiting spot, return about an hour later, and then, one-by-one, pull up each bait line with the hope of catching a shark (and beginning the scientific work). We did this again and again until the setting sun told us it was time to call it a day. In the sweet in-between times as we waited for the sharks to bite, the research team would fill me in on some of the key moments from the last 25 years of ocean history in the Bahamas.
In 1993, the government of the Bahamas banned longline fishing (which targeted tuna and billfish, but often snared sharks as bycatch). In 2011, they established their waters as an official shark sanctuary, adding an important layer of protection, and enforcing a no-kill, no-catch policy for sharks. For Dr Gallagher and his shark-loving global associates this was a big win - they'd just spearheaded a now-famous scientific study about the value of live sharks to the diving industry (which profoundly moved the dial). Sharks were soon recognised as being worth more alive than dead.
Beneath the Waves is now conducting further research aimed at ensuring that sanctuaries will continue to function properly and promote the long-term health of shark populations. “We are implanting various species of sharks in the Bahamas with internal acoustic transmitters and monitoring their habitat use throughout the year with fixed receiver stations,” Gallagher explains.
The trend is growing to protect sharks: it’s clear that shark conservation is currently a cool issue to advocate for. Many governments are now facing pressure to protect sharks and extinguish the markets that threaten them (recent victories include banning shark fin soup in China, the largest single stressor to shark populations globally).
Shark sanctuary designations typically prohibit the commercial fishing of all sharks, as well as the retention of sharks caught as bycatch and the possession, trade, and sale of sharks and shark products within a country’s exclusive economic zone. Sadly, it’s not a given that sharks in the Bahamas will continue to be protected, as they're constantly vulnerable to foreign interests.
“As things change and countries undergo economic hardships or government regimes change there is a constant threat to the sanctity of these marine protected areas. This area is the most diverse and abundant sanctuary in the western hemisphere so it needs to remain intact. It must be maintained and studied in order for other countries to get on board with protecting shark stocks globally,” Dr Gallagher adamantly states. “The Bahamas is a model for other countries. It is a global treasure.”
Note from Ocean Unite: Many organisations and individuals have been working for years to secure shark sanctuaries, trade bans and other protections for sharks. The effort to protect sharks in The Bahamas was led by local organisations like The Bahamas National Trust, local leaders and school children. Find out more about shark sanctuaries globally.
- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.