By Gemma Handy
They are one of the most maligned creatures on the planet. Yet sharks are crucial to the coral reef ecosystem, play a major role in tourism and are an important indicator of how healthy our oceans are.
Too many are being killed indiscriminately in Antigua and Barbuda’s waters, environmentalists say, whether for sport, by fishermen who resent the competition, or by people who mistakenly believe they pose a threat.
“We have a big problem with people killing tiger sharks, particularly wealthy businessmen who do it for sport,” says local tour operator Eli Fuller.
“There are also people who commercially fish them for meat. It’s not like killing chickens to eat – sharks have an extremely difficult time reproducing and give birth to live pups, unlike other fish which lay thousands of eggs a time,” he explains.
“On top of that it takes a very long time for sharks to reach sexual maturity and they have a long gestation period too.
“In other countries, people go there specifically to swim with sharks – and here we are killing them.”
Fuller, a long-time environmental activist, says the twin island nation should follow the lead of some of its Caribbean neighbours, like the Bahamas and BVI, and implement an outright ban against shark fishing.
“When I was a kid, there was not a single day when we would go to North Sound and not see a shark – all kinds of sharks, on top of the reef. Now we hardly see them; maybe just a handful.
“What many people don’t understand is the role they play in the ecosystem. As apex predators, sharks eat the ‘junky’ fish, and other creatures. They get rid of bad genetics and stop them reproducing. Without them, the entire food chain can get messed up,” he says.
“It’s time we say enough is enough and ban killing them completely. Sharks are worth much more to our tourism industry than they are as meat.”
Kristina Kotusiewicz, co-owner of Antigua Scuba School, agrees.
“I get divers all the time who are dying to see sharks; a surprising number never have. A shark is always the highlight of a dive and dominates the conversation on the boat ride home,” she tells Observer.
“We know they are worth much more money alive than dead.”
A 2011 study in the Bahamas estimated the value of a Caribbean reef shark to be US$250,000 for tourism if kept alive. The same shark would generate approximately US$50 if killed and sold.
“Those figures stay true for any healthy tourist economy,” Kotusiewicz believes.
“I think more are killed for food than any other reason here but whatever the reason is, it’s misinformed. We are visitors in the sharks’ home. No one is surprised if you go to pet a lion in the wild and get attacked, but how come with sharks it’s blown out of proportion?
“The main problem with sharks is the long time to maturity. Unlike other fish, some sharks need 10 to 12 years to reach reproductive maturity and many produce only one pup,” she says.
Sharks typically found in Antigua and Barbuda’s waters include reef, nurse and lemon sharks, and occasionally passing tiger sharks on their migration route.
Many local divers have developed close bonds with the sharks that frequent the sites they visit.
“We constantly have to worry if our friends will still be there the next day due to unregulated fishing practices,” Kotusiewicz adds.
Almost five decades since sharks were vilified in the movie Jaws, marine ecologist Ruleo Camacho says “misinformation” still abounds regarding these special and majestic creatures.
“There needs to be a carefully designed campaign that educates people that they’re not just killing machines … they are very important to maintaining the health of a reef ecosystem,” he tells Observer.
“I always say if I dive and I see sharks it means it’s healthy because sharks are at the top of the food chain. Sharks play an active role in ensuring the circulation of nutrients continues. They hunt and target sick and dying fish which helps to create a space for other fish to come into the ecosystem.
“It’s like lions on a savannah; without lions hunting the gazelles, the gazelles can become overpopulated, then they reduce the grass and everything collapses.
“When you remove sharks you upset the balance.”
Camacho believes sharks being killed out of fear – rather than for food – is more prevalent in Antigua and Barbuda.
“If someone seems a shark swimming, you often hear someone say, I’m gonna kill it. There’s no reason to kill it. It’s not going to trouble you, it’s really just in its natural environment and it’s playing a role so you really don’t want to remove it,” he says.
Some sharks – particularly juveniles – occasionally end up as fishermen’s bycatch too.
“Nothing juvenile should be killed,” Camacho says. “You really want them to reach, at minimum, sexual maturity so they have a chance to reproduce, contribute back to the ecosystem and replace themselves.”
In the absence of recent data, local statistics on shark numbers are elusive.
Tricia Lovell, deputy chief fisheries officer, says while shark studies have been undertaken in the past, there is a need for “additional work” to be carried out.
Globally, humans kill an estimated 100 million sharks annually, primarily for food. Experts have warned that certain species face extinction if the trend continues. Caribbean reef sharks, lemon sharks and tiger sharks are all listed as ‘near threatened’ due to their declining numbers.
A report last year by the US NGO, Pew Charitable Trusts, said worldwide shark populations have declined by as much as 70 to 80 percent. Many fear that’s a brink they may not be able to recover from.