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A model of shark protection

The Bahamian archipelago has some of the richest shark populations in the western Atlantic, and to protect them, the Commonwealth of The Bahamas has instituted some of the most progressive shark conservation measures in the world. Longline and gillnet fishing have been banned since 1993, and in 2011, The Bahamas designated its entire 243,000 square miles of territorial waters as a shark sanctuary. The move prohibits the taking of sharks by any method in an area just slightly smaller than the combined area of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, and their waters.

The sanctuary designation was a victory for sharks and The Bahamas alike. The protection sustains healthy and balanced marine ecosystems, which in turn are a destination for shark-diving tourists, who contribute significantly to The Bahamas’ economy.

This progressive approach to shark conservation can serve as an example to other nations in the Caribbean region, but its success needs to be assessed and monitored to ensure its long-term implementation.

The beautiful blue waters of the Bahamas, when viewed above, reveal a multitude of sandy shoals dropping into deep darker areas.
Shark researcher Steve Kessel leans over the side of a small boat to work with a wild shark in the Bahamas.

“Around one-quarter of all elasmobranch species are currently threatened with extinction. To reduce and even reverse these declines, we need good data generated by applied research to inform conservation and management initiatives.”

Steve Kessel, Ph.D., Director of Marine Research

Shark abundance and healthy oceans

Shedd Aquarium’s researchers are evaluating the long-accepted connection between carrying capacity—the number of organisms an ecosystem can support with available resources—and shark abundance. The vast Bahamas Shark Sanctuary provides the perfect location for this study. The data gathered can be used to promote the benefits of well-enforced marine protected areas (MPAs) for maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems.

A better understanding of the relationship between shark abundance and ecosystem health will also increase our ability to promote sharks as critical indicator species for assessing the condition of marine habitats. We have an opportunity to ensure that The Bahamas’ shark populations remain healthy and are protected in perpetuity.

Three people lean over the side of the boat to look at sharks.
Shedd shark researchers in the Bahamas attach a thin ID tag to the back of a shark's dorsal fin so that they can more quickly and safely identify it if they ever encounter the same shark again.

Importance of sharks and sanctuaries

Sharks are among the world’s most impressive predators—yet they need our help. It is estimated that around 100 million sharks are killed by commercial fishing operations every year. Because of these unsustainable catches, some shark species are declining at alarming rates around the globe, and as sharks disappear, marine ecosystems degrade. As upper-food-web predators, sharks are crucial in maintaining the biological diversity and therefore the ecological balance and health of their environments.

All marine life depends on healthy oceans—and humans do too. With The Bahamas as a model, other coastal and island governments can play an important global conservation role, as well as protect their own marine resources, by implementing shark conservation measures, such as shark sanctuaries, within their national waters.

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