Onward to Cat Island

This next phase of the Bahamian shark research expedition is taking place at Cat Island. I’ve been in contact with the team, who have been tagging oceanic white tip sharks for the past 2 weeks.

Because of the shark fin trade and increased demand for shark fin soup in Asian cultures, populations of oceanic white tips have been decimated around the globe. This makes Cat Island a very unique place. During the months of March-June, Cat Island becomes one of the few places in the world where large aggregations of the oceanic white tip shark can be found.

Oceanic white tip at Cat Island. Photo credit: Sean Williams

The oceanic white tip is an endangered species. These sharks were recently listed on CITES (www.cites.org), an international trade agreement to make sure endangered species are not sold on the global marketplace. Although the international sale and trade of products derived from oceanic white tips (such as their fins for shark fin soup) is now illegal, they still die from getting caught on lines of other fisheries. There is also an illegal trade of their fins.   Team members Debra Abercrombie and Demian Chapman are trying to stop this, and developed a shark fin guide to help managers and governments identify endangered and illegal species of shark fins that are being sold (www.sharkfinid.com). They have both traveled around the world training governments agencies and law enforcement officials to use the guide and were instrumental in getting oceanic white tips listed on CITES.

The team is putting satellite tags on oceanic white tips to study their movements, including how far down they dive to catch prey and where they are moving around the ocean. They are also hoping to find the shark’s breeding grounds in the Atlantic. Understanding shark behavior and migration patterns, especially across political boundaries, is crucial to their overall protection. Using the satellite tags, the team can study these patterns within the Bahamian shark sanctuary, as well as outside its borders. This information will help determine how ongoing shark fishing in neighboring countries may affect their numbers in the Bahamas.

Team member, Lucy Howey-Jordan, is the lead scientist on the satellite-tagging project. Each tag is about 6 inches long and after about 10-12 months, it detaches from the shark and transmits the data it collected to the team. This animation shows the movements of sharks tagged by the team in 2013. It shows that about 1/3 go north out of the Bahamian shark sanctuary, 1/3 go east and the rest stay in the Bahamas. However, all of them return to the sanctuary each year.




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