We drove the big boat south today toward the island of Andros. The winds were up and the sea was choppy. We got tossed around quite a bit – but I enjoyed every second. I really miss being out on the water. As a marine scientist who focuses much of her time on science communication these days, it’s nice to get a chance to go back out in the field. Marine conservation in a passion of mine. Its great to be working on a project that involves cutting edge science that has real management implications for the protection of endangered and threatened shark species throughout the Caribbean.
Sharks sit atop the ocean’s food chain and play critical roles in sustaining healthy and balanced ocean environments. However, even these apex predators are vulnerable to human activities and are in peril throughout most of the world’s oceans. Sharks have been severely overfished, largely as a result of increasing demand for shark fin soup, a popular luxury dish in Asia that can fetch upwards of $100 per bowl.
Shark conservation efforts face many challenges. Sharks are slow to reach sexual maturity, and are extremely vulnerable to overfishing. They produce relatively few offspring, and, even with strict protections, face long population recovery times.
Areas designated as ‘Shark sanctuaries’, such as the Bahamas, provide sharks with protection from overfishing, and therefore allow shark populations an opportunity to recover. However, these sanctuaries will only be effective if sharks stay within sanctuary borders long enough to reproduce. Dr. Chapman’s research team is mapping critical juvenile shark habitats and nursery sites around the Bahamas and tracking behavior patterns of adult sharks. Once compiled, this information will be shared with the Bahamian government, so that additional protections can be provided to shark populations. If the Bahamian shark sanctuary is shown to be successful, it will serve as a model for other areas in the Caribbean.
Today we left the mangrove nursery grounds of the lemon sharks, and headed out to sea toward an old navel buoy. Fish like to hang out near old buoys – they provide a bit of cover out there in the big ocean. And, where little fish like to hang out, you find big fish. We were looking for a very big fish – a silky shark, Carcharhinus falciformus. Unfortunately, we got there a bit late in the day and didn’t catch anything. We’ll try again tomorrow.
Later in the day, we pulled up to the marina in Fresh Creek, Andros – our home for the night. There were some fishermen cleaning the day’s catch on the dock. Mark went to have a look thinking there might be some sharks around. There was. A big blacktip shark was circling. Blacktips, Carcharhinus limbatus, are a common coastal species of shark found worldwide that like to hang out near reefs and marinas. Blacktips are fast swimming sharks that can leap out of the water, making them popular catches among recreational fishermen.
Seeing our excitement, Jerry, a middle-aged Bahamian fisherman who was the dock master, threw a line into the water. The shark bit. It was amazing – watching him pull this shark in with his bare hands! No reel, no rod, just line in hand. It fought and flipped out of the water, but he didn’t let up. Mark grabbed the science kit and we ran over to get some measurements. We hopped into a little boat tied up on the dock as Jerry and Sean guided the shark along the boat’s side. Sean and Mark took a DNA sample and I wrote down the measurements…195 cm – that is over 6 feet long! Sean said it was one of the biggest blacktips he had ever seen.
We tagged the shark and sent in on its way. A good end to the day.