On a Mission to Save Sharks

KerriLynn MillerIt was one year ago this month that KerriLynn Miller, an associate with the Pew Environment Group's global shark conservation campaign, received the news that the government of The Bahamas had created a shark sanctuary in its waters. This was welcome news to someone who had just spent more than a year working in partnership with the Bahamas National Trust to help protect all 630,000 square kilometers (243,244 square miles) of the country's waters as a shark sanctuary, where commercial fishing of sharks and the sale, import, and export of shark products are prohibited. Looking back, Miller talks about this rewarding experience.

Why create a shark sanctuary in The Bahamas?

It's really the perfect place for sharks. The Bahamas banned longline fishing gear in the 1990s, and they don't have an active fishery for sharks. It remains one of the few locations in the Atlantic with relatively healthy shark populations.

If the populations are healthy, does The Bahamas need a sanctuary?

Despite the abundance of sharks in the waters of The Bahamas, there were no specific regulations to protect sharks around the islands. In 2010, a seafood export company took interest in harvesting shark fins in The Bahamas for export to Asia. Bahamians recognized the threat and knew that the loss of sharks could cause irreversible damage to the ocean and the local economy, so they decided to act to protect their sharks before the fishery was allowed to begin.

"Sharks now swim freely without the threat of fishing pressure throughout the waters of The Bahamas. They will continue to attract tourists, filmmakers, media, and scientists to witness firsthand these special animals in their habitat."

What types of sharks live in the waters surrounding these islands?

More than 40 species of sharks can be found within Bahamian waters. Oceanic whitetip sharks are found off Cat Island; there's a lemon shark nursery in the waters surrounding Bimini; and tiger sharks can be found off Tiger Beach. One tiger shark, named Emma, is a local favorite. But it's the large population of Caribbean reef and nurse sharks that really attract the diving community to The Bahamas.

The Bahamas is known as the "Dive Capital of the World," why?

In the past 20 years, shark-related tourism has contributed more than US$800 million to the Bahamian economy. It's also a place where film production crews frequently choose to work, because the water is clear and there are plenty of sharks to capture on film.

What was your role in establishing the shark sanctuary?

I was simply one of the very lucky people who got the opportunity to work in The Bahamas for weeks at a time, hand in hand with Pew's partner organization, The Bahamas National Trust. A number of dedicated people helped to make this effort possible, and I am thrilled to say I was able to be a part of this amazing achievement. My role was to raise public awareness about the importance of shark protection. To do this, we visited schools, spoke at public events, and organized government meetings.

What was a defining moment for you during the campaign to protect sharks in The Bahamas?

Of course, the defining moment was when the sanctuary was created on July 5, 2011, through the signing of the amendment to the Fisheries Act. However, I was also particularly proud of my efforts to involve schoolchildren. I worked to bring cartoonist Jim Toomey, of “Sherman's Lagoon,” to the islands so he could help us with outreach. Watching the delight and excitement on the schoolchildrens faces as they watched him draw and animate his cartoon, with one made specifically for The Bahamas, was such a joy. After Toomey's trip, thousands of children throughout the country submitted artwork of their favorite shark in support of the efforts to establish a shark sanctuary.

Can you describe a sense of how some of the communities felt about shark conservation?

Shortly after the sanctuary was established, we held screenings on Grand Bahama, Abaco, and New Providence of our film, “Sanctuary: The Last Stand for Sharks,” which focused on how Bahamians were working for shark conservation. I watched the pride and respect for their country well-up from the people gathered at those showings, and I felt satisfied knowing that I had made a difference.

What does the future of sharks in The Bahamas look like to you?

Sharks now swim freely without the threat of fishing pressure throughout the waters of The Bahamas. They will continue to attract tourists, filmmakers, media, and scientists to witness firsthand these special animals in their habitat. Although this is good for the islands' sharks, it is even better for The Bahamas' marine environment as a whole because sharks are key to keeping our oceans healthy. Unfortunately, many shark species leave the safe haven of The Bahamas to migrate to places where they are not protected and risk being caught. I hope more countries will follow in the footsteps of The Bahamas to protect vulnerable shark species before it's too late. I'd like to see the momentum continue around the globe.

Photos from KerriLynn Miller's trips to The Bahamas:

Media Contact: Rachel Brittin

Topics: Oceans, Environment

Project: Global Shark Conservation