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Insight: Sharks Skirting On The Edge Of Wipeout But Not In Our Waters

By TANYA SMITH-CARTWRIGHT

ts-cartwright@tribunemedia.net

New research from Global FinPrint, headed by researchers at Florida International University (FIU), has concluded that sharks are absent from many reefs around the world and has deemed the species, “functionally extinct”. The good news is The Bahamas is not in that count as it is one of the few countries that still has a healthy shark population.

Global FinPrint found that sharks were not observed on nearly twenty percent of the reefs surveyed. And, since 2015, the FinPrint team has used underwater cameras to pinpoint specific strongholds for sharks and rays.

Shelly Cant-Woodside, Director of Science and Policy, Bahamas National Trust, said that nearly 100 million sharks are fished for the Shark Fin soup industry, annually, but The Bahamas has a ban on shark fishing to keep its shark population intact.

“Destructive fishing practices still remains to be the biggest threat to all marine life, particularly sharks,” Cant-Woodside said.

“So in The Bahamas, specifically, the banning of fishing of sharks has prevented certain companies from reaching into our waters to fish out our sharks. But, around the world, Asian fleets are still wiping out large quantities of sharks just for shark fin soup. These are huge numbers. We are talking about nearly 100,000,000 sharks per year are removed for that industry. It is still devastating to these animals that are actually very slow growing. They have low reproductive rates.”

Cant-Woodside runs the science and policy department at the Trust. This department consists of a small, but highly specialized team. She works to guide the organization strategically on how to advance scientific research, policy development to assist with conservation and resource management in The Bahamas.

The team specializes in both marine and terrestrial environments and undertakes various projects from birds to sharks.

The Florida International University’s study showed 15,000 hours of underwater video from 371 reefs in 58 countries, states and territories around the world. It has revealed that sharks are absent on many of the world’s coral reefs. The study refers to sharks as “functionally extinct”, which means they are so rare in certain areas they can no longer fulfil their role in the ecosystem.

“Unfortunately the world relies very heavily on things like long lining and netting,” Cant-Woodside continued. “And, any area that has a lot of that going on is going to remove predators as well because if you have fish sitting on a hook for hours at a time waiting for fishermen to pull in, it is going to attract predators.

“So even though those practices are not trying to get sharks, necessarily, they are trying to get tuna or sword fish or whatever it is, it accidentally targets a whole of sharks. So sharks are both being pursued very heavily around the world and they are also accidentally being caught around the world as well.”

The FIU-headed study shows that, essentially, there were no sharks detected on any of the reefs in the following countries:

· Dominican Republic

· French West Indies

· Kenya

· Vietnam

· Windward Dutch Antilles

· Qatar

A combined total of three sharks were observed during more than 800 survey hours in these locations.

Cant-Woodside reiterated that certain fishing practices are a threat to shark survival, but she also explained how important coral reefs are to their survival as well.

“The Bahamas worked quite hard to not just protect sharks, but we are trying to protect our fisheries resources so that Bahamians would always be able to rely on our fisheries resources,” she said continuing. “Protecting sharks is one aspect of it. The other aspect is by keeping long lining banned in The Bahamas and by doing this we keep a healthier fish and shark populations than many other countries that use long lining fishing heavily.

“The coral reefs are extremely important for the health of all marine organisms. They supply the environment for marine life. Unfortunately, the

world’s coral reefs are in great danger and declining gradually everywhere including The Bahamas. Some countries are just doing a little bit better at keeping healthier reefs than others. We have things like global warming going on that’s heating up the reefs and making them expel their algae and then they are eventually dying. And, of course there are countries that have so much pollution and all these things together

“If coral reefs start to die off, then there is going to be less fish around for sharks to feed on and so there is going to be less sharks. And, so the whole system starts to break down to the extent that you end up with what’s called a dead zone, eventually. It ends up deteriorating to nothing but just a bit of algae that can’t support the entire ecosystem. Once you have a dead zone it’s really hard to get it back. Coral reefs are definitely paramount to all of this.”

This FIU study, which also identifies the primary culprits of reef shark population declines, has long-term implications for protecting and rebuilding reef shark populations all across the world.

Cant-Woodside noted that, unfortunately, reefs are no longer safe due to various attacks like bleaching, but the latest being a disease to hit the Caribbean countries.

“Right now in The Bahamas we have this new disease that’s attacking our reefs that has been rampaging across Florida and the Caribbean since 2014,” she informed. “We just got it and it’s called “Stony Coral Tissue Loft Disease” and it’s really devastating. It you think of how COVID is really devastating for people and how it’s really impacted our economy, well Stony Coral Tissue Loft Disease has the same effect in the marine environment, wiping out nearly twenty different species of coral. They are just disappearing very quickly.”

In regards to Stony Coral Tissue Loft Disease, Cant-Wood noted that scientists have not been able to identify the pathogen as yet and that’s why it has such a non-descript name.

“Bahamian reefs were starting to do really well in making a comeback and it’s really sad to see that it’s now in The Bahamas – off New Providence and Grand Bahama,” she continued. “It seems to be spread by ports so we think that shipping traffic is a source of spread. It’s something that we are watching and very concerned about.

“All the different pressures on that system is going to have a cascading effect where it will also impact sharks. Sharks are a good indicator of how healthy an environment is. Studies like that look at sharks so much because if you have a lot of healthy shark populations you know that your system must be really healthy to be able to sustain all of that.”

The study listed the following countries as areas where sharks are most abundant and conservation is working:

· The Bahamas

· United States

· Australia

· Federated States of Micronesia

· French Polynesia

· Maldives.

It said in many of these areas, shark fishing has been banned or there is strong, science-based management practices in place, which limits how many sharks can be caught.

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