The Bahamas National Trust (BNT) joined the Government of St. Maarten, St. Maarten Nature Foundation, and The Pew Charitable Trusts as hosts of the Caribbean Shark Conservation Symposium, which took place from Tuesday, June 13 through Thursday, June 16.  The gathering of Caribbean island government officials, environmental NGOs, and global shark conservation experts was coordinated to discuss the future of shark conservation in the region.As the first Caribbean country to establish a shark sanctuary and a leader in the region, the voice of the The Bahamas was represented at the meeting by Eric Carey, Executive Director of BMT.

Caribbean Reef Sharks - photo by Jim Abernethy

Carey said: “The Bahamas National Trust has been promoting shark conservation for many years. Our efforts to secure the longline ban nearly 30 years ago, presented an incredible opportunity to protect intact shark populations. Our being asked to cohost this meeting is a clear indication that the actions taken by The Bahamas to protect our sharks, has distinguished us as a leader in ocean conservation in the Caribbean. BNT is proud to have played a part in this.”

Also in attendance was Virgin Group Founder Sir Richard Branson, who has been supportive of establishing regional shark protections throughout the Caribbean, and cohosted a similar meeting in Bimini, The Bahamas in 2015.

During the meeting, four Caribbean governments committed to help reverse this trend by fully protecting sharks in their waters. St. Maarten and the Cayman Islands announced that their economic zones (EEZs) are completely closed to commercial shark fishing.   Additionally, Curacao announced that they will establish legislation this year that will protect sharks in their waters, and Grenada is considering measures that would safeguard sharks within the country’s EEZ. Together, the two new sanctuaries cover a total of 119,631 square kilometers and raise the total number of Caribbean sanctuaries to seven.

The findings of a study of the economic impact of sharks on The Bahamas’ tourism industry were also released at the meeting. Lead investigator, Dr. Edward Brooks from the Cape Eleuthera Institute, was in attendance to discuss the study, which found that sharks generate US$113 million annually in direct expenditure and value added through tourism to the Bahamian economy.

Lemon Shark - photo by Jim Abernethy

Brooks said: “The results of our study illustrate the importance of the ongoing stewardship of sharks and rays demonstrated by The Bahamian Government over the last 25 years, for which they are now reaping the economic rewards.  However, despite the actions of The Bahamas and the other Caribbean nations who protect sharks within their waters, more work is needed on a regional basis in order to effectively manage many of these economically important species which call the entire North West Atlantic and Caribbean home.”

Sharks play a vital role in the Caribbean, both to the health of the ocean and to a countless number of people whose livelihoods are directly connected to these animals.  With at least 100 million sharks killed each year, establishing additional meaningful and lasting protections in the Caribbean will ensure a healthy shark population for future generations.