The Bahamas announced Tuesday morning it would end all commercial shark fishing in its waters, an area that encompasses more than 240,000 square miles.
The move — under which only the catch and release of sharks is permitted — marks the second time in two weeks that a Caribbean nation has enacted broad protections for sharks in its exclusive economic zone. Honduras instituted a total ban on shark fishing in its waters June 24.
“The Bahamas government is determined to enhance the protection extended to sharks,” said Lawrence S. Cartwright, the country’s minister of agriculture and marine resources, at a press conference where he signed the measure into law. “As we are all aware, sharks are heavily fished in many corners of the world’s oceans.”
Roughly 40 species of sharks swim in the waters of the Bahamas, which is heavily dependent on tourism. Eric Carey, executive director of the Bahamas National Trust, noted in a recent interview that tourism accounts for 60 percent of his nation’s gross domestic product, and shark tourism alone generates $80 million in annual revenue.
Last fall a seafood export firm in the Bahamas raised the idea of catching sharks to meet the global demand for shark’s fin soup, which sparked a major public relations and lobbying campaign aimed at enacting a shark fishing ban. The Bahamas prohibited longline fishing in 1993, which helped maintain the region’s healthy shark populations.
“We started realizing we had to start protecting the sharks,” said Carey, whose non-governmental organization manages the Bahamas’ national park system.
The Bahamas National Trust, along with the U.S.-based Pew Environment Group, sponsored a petition drive, televised public service announcements and distributed posters and T-shirts. Several international shark advocates — including Pierre-Yves Cousteau, the son of Jacques Cousteau, artist Guy Harvey and Sherman’s Lagoon cartoonist Jim Toomey — visited the Bahamas to push for the ban.
Jill Hepp, the Pew Environment Group’s manager of global shark conservation, said that “2011 is fast becoming the year of the shark. We applaud the people and government of the Bahamas for being bold leaders in marine conservation.”
Some shark researchers, however, warn that these bans will not achieve their aims unless there is adequate enforcement along with outreach to local communities.
“I really think what we’re seeing is a media war at the expense of well-grounded, meaningful marine conservation,” said Rachel Graham, who directs the Gulf and Caribbean sharks and rays program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, referring to the recent proliferation of national shark sanctuaries. “And that makes me worried.”
But Cartwright said many of the Bahamas’ 300,000 residents have come to embrace shark conservation, noting that 5,000 residents signed a petition supporting the new restrictions. “As far as we’re aware, there is wide support for it,” he said in a phone interview after the press conference.
Cartwright added that the Bahamas Defense Force, which has three installations throughout the islands and is establishing a fourth, will enforce the new law. He added that fishing vessel operators, who all have cellphones on their boats, are likely to report any violations of the regulations.
“Our fishermen are our greatest resource, in terms of enforcement,” he said.