Friday, January 6, 2012

Cayman Island Shark Study: results show less than expected numbers

Making a strong case for shark conservation requires more than an appeal to the emotions. Railing against the practice of shark finning or positioning sharks as cuddly creatures who mean no harm can generate sympathy among portions of the general populace, but it's hard facts that are required to convince politicians and policymakers that steps need to be taken to protect these ocean predators.

For the past three years, the Cayman Islands have been host to a group of marine researchers who have been conducting a population study of sharks and rays in and around the islands. A joint effort between the Save Our Seas Foundation and Marine Conservation International, the project was coordinated by the Cayman Island's department of the environment and funded in part by the UK's Overseas Territory Environment Programme, the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, and others. A presentation was recently held to summarize the findings and while anyone familiar with the current state of shark populations might expect the reported numbers to be low, what the researchers found to be most disconcerting was there appears to be far fewer species in local waters than expected.

At the presentation, several of the researchers involved with the project, including Dr. Mauvis Gore and Professor Rupert Ormond, made a strong case for shark conservation with the usual arguments regarding the overfishing of sharks, the positive impact that sharks have in maintaining balance within local marine ecosystems, and the multimillion dollar difference in economic value
between shark consumption and shark tourism value - often by a factor of x50 or more in favor of tourism. These are many of the same justifications used to support shark protections or sanctuaries in other countries.

However, what was of particular concern to the scientists was what their research found that was unique to the Cayman Islands. Several species that historically were common in Cayman waters were found to be in much smaller numbers, if found at all. The Cayman News Service reported that, as part of the study, the researchers conducted tagging of several sharks species to track their movements and, as has been documented by others, sharks like tiger sharks, oceanic whitetips, and others were found to cover considerable distances. This presents the need for establishing cooperative policies between other nearby countries as the sharks will not be paying much attention to the boundaries of local shark protected areas or sanctuaries.

"Although the tracking has helped the scientists learn more about the sharks their failure to even find key species in the area to tag such as hammerheads has limited the research but so far the scientists are able to conclude that Cayman has only a modest number of sharks and a lower than expected variety of species. Dr Gore said the scarcity of hammerheads was a concern given that in the 1970s it was possible to sea schools of this type of shark in local waters. 'People think I’m mad when I say this,' she said, given the current scarcity of the species here."

With the environment minister, Mark Scotland, calling the study's results as "eye opening," perhaps we will see action in the near future to establish protections in the Cayman's local waters combined with collaborative efforts between the Cayman Islands and neighboring countries like Mexico, Honduras, the Bahamas and others. For shark conservationists, this would be welcomed news.

Source: Cayman News Service

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