How Shark Sanctuaries Sparked a Conservation Movement

A decade of conservation changed a species’ image from villain to vulnerable

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How Shark Sanctuaries Sparked a Conservation Movement
In 2009, Palau created the first shark sanctuary. Sixteen more were designated in the next 10 years.

This is the second in a series of articles commemorating a decade of shark conservation work.

Many sharks are highly migratory, often traversing immense distances of the global ocean, including the high seas and national waters.

Ten years ago, sharks had few protections and little management in the face of threats—including targeted fishing to incidental catch—everywhere they traveled.  But in 2009, Palau designated the world’s first shark sanctuary, starting a wave of conservation that has since grown to 17 sanctuaries, from Samoa to Sint Maarten.

A shark sanctuary is more than a place; it can also be a set of fisheries regulations and a useful tool for any coastal or island government seeking to reduce shark mortality in its waters. Sanctuaries typically prohibit the commercial fishing of all sharks, the retention of any caught as bycatch, and the possession, trade, and sale of sharks and shark products within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Some also ban fishing gear typically used to target sharks. Because of the role that sharks play in maintaining ocean health, protecting the species with sanctuaries provides ecosystem, environmental, cultural, and economic benefits.

The Pew Charitable Trusts spoke to some of the pioneers who worked toward achieving the first shark sanctuaries: Eric Carey, the executive director of The Bahamas National Trust, was instrumental in The Bahamas 2011 sanctuary designation; Khadeeja Ali, the senior research officer at the Marine Research Centre in the Maldives, helped secure the country’s decision in 2010; and Dermot Keane, managing director at Sam’s Tours, is a long-time advocate for shark protections in Palau, the first country to establish a shark sanctuary (2009).

Note: These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What prompted you to secure full protections for sharks in your country’s national waters?

Eric Carey

Eric Carey: The Bahamas National Trust (BNT) was aware of the global decline of sharks and had banned longline fishing in the 1990s, which helped our shark populations remain relatively healthy. We also never had a commercial shark fishery in Bahamian waters. The shark tourism industry at that time was contributing significantly to the Bahamian economy, and the role that sharks play to ensure healthy fisheries and coral reefs meant that The Bahamas could potentially lose a lot more than just its shark populations if commercial shark fishing was introduced.

Khadeeja Ali: Prior to 2009, the Government of Maldives imposed various management measures to reduce the conflicts created from shark fishing. But shark declines continued to hurt pole-and-line tuna fisheries and dive tourism. That led the government to issue a complete ban on all types of shark fishing in the EEZ.

Dermot Keane: At the start of the 2000s, Palau sought an end to the shameful and destructive practice of “shark finning” by foreign fishing fleets in Palau’s waters. Loss of Palau’s sharks threatened not only Palau’s underwater environment but also its internationally renowned dive industry. President Johnson Toribiong made a bold move that changed the course of shark conservation by declaring Palau the world’s first shark sanctuary in September 2009.

Q: What effects have you observed since the designation of your shark sanctuary?

Carey: The Bahamas has seen an increase in the number of visitors coming to experience the “Shark Diving Capital of The World.” The sanctuary has also increased the knowledge of the importance of sharks in the marine environment amongst the Bahamian people. It has been encouraging to see locals demand repercussions for those who do not abide by the new shark regulations.

Khadeeja Ali
Khadeeja Ali

Ali: Fishers and divers have reported increases in shark numbers in the Maldives. Globally, the effects of these sanctuaries are not known yet. Recent assessments in the Arabian Sea region showed that about 50 percent of sharks and rays were in the ‘threatened’ category of the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] Red List. More shark species are getting listed in the CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] appendices, which shows how susceptible those populations are to unmanaged fishing pressure.

Keane: An immediate effect was the massive positive press about Palau that instantly expanded knowledge of the country beyond just the dive community. As a tourism-dependent destination, this provided otherwise unaffordable marketing exposure that continues to benefit Palau. The declaration also reignited the spirit and hopes of shark enthusiasts around the world who had all but given up on prospects of protecting sharks. There is ample empirical data that shark populations at Palau’s dive sites have rebounded to healthy and increasing levels. The declaration was instrumental in the subsequent passage of legislation creating the Palau National Marine Sanctuary under President Tommy E. Remengesau Jr.

Shark Sanctuary
The Maldives established a shark sanctuary in the country’s national waters in 2010, banning the commercial fishing of all species, including silky sharks like the one shown here.
Jim Abernethy

Q: What growth in global shark conservation efforts have you noticed in the past 10 years?

Carey: Mainly that smaller countries, despite their limited resources, have been able, through shark sanctuaries, to make a commitment to shark conservation—and have had success.

Ali: More archipelagic countries with vast EEZs have followed suit by declaring their waters as sanctuaries for sharks. Some regional fishery management bodies have implemented resolutions, such as the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission’s ban on retention of thresher sharks, and encouraged all member countries to develop a national plan of action on shark conservation and management. Additionally, countries such as the Maldives, where shark sanctuaries have been established, are playing an active role in regulating the global trade of sharks. CITES has also restricted trade in numerous shark species, and more have been proposed.

Dermot Keane
Dermot Keane

Keane: Several countries followed Palau’s bold move and declared sanctuaries, which led to the creation of the U.N. Save Our Sharks Coalition, with Palau as the first chair. It was vital that Palau follow through in this area to create greater awareness and inspire others. Also, the global media attention Palau’s declaration brought to the plight of sharks and their importance to the health of our ocean has helped transform negative public opinion about sharks into greater understanding that has helped improve protection—although sharks are not out of harm’s way. The movement has also focused attention on the massively destructive impacts of illegal and unregulated commercial fishing.

Q: Why is it important for more countries to become shark champions?

Carey: The science is clear: Top predators need to remain in ecosystems to ensure their productivity.  It’s also critical that countries enact legislation to protect and manage sharks. The benefits of becoming a sanctuary have been extensive for The Bahamas’ tourism and economy, and for our traditional fishing practices for generations to come. Other countries could enjoy similar benefits by acting strongly to protect sharks.

Ali: With increasing technological advancements in fishing, there is an increasing threat to ocean resources. Sharks are the No. 1 incidental catch in most longline fisheries and are slow to rebound from high exploitation rates. Sanctuary designations have caused a rise in international conservation and management efforts—for example regional fishery management organizations’ implementing more stringent measures on sharks. Recently the Maldives’ proposition to list silky sharks on CITES has been endorsed and more countries are now using CITES listings to better control international trade with the hopes of alleviating the fishing pressure on shark and ray populations. 

Keane: The health of sharks and shark populations is a key performance indicator in the bigger fight against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. Contrary to popular perception, the preservation of sharks does not put humans at greater risk but rather helps protect us from destroying the very oceans upon which we depend for life.  

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