There are few creatures that capture our imaginations the way sharks do. These mysterious, fearsome and majestic fish, which are vitally important to healthy ocean and reef ecosystems, are increasingly imperiled by human activity, even in the Cayman Islands.
Over the years, the Kenneth B. Dart Foundation has supported the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation’s efforts to tag and track sharks to better understand their movement and migration patterns.
Pilar Bush, Dart executive vice president with responsibility for community development, said the organisation’s continued support for marine conservation aligns with both its focus on sustainable development and its education efforts to inspire the next generation of leaders in the "STEM" subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“The efforts of the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, the Department of Environment and CCMI are essential to safeguarding our marine environment and empowering local youth to pursue careers and opportunities in marine science,” Bush said. “From Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease to climate change, our marine ecosystems are facing a variety of emerging threats that will require innovative, science-based solutions and cross-sector collaboration to address.”
As of August this year, statistics from the Department of Environment demonstrate a 69% increase in shark deaths in Cayman waters over 2019 figures, with evidence linking the majority of deaths to encounters with people fishing.
Central Caribbean Marine Institute Director of Advancement Kate Holden said the rise in local shark deaths is concerning.
"There have been several shark deaths recently that are incredibly sad to see,” she said.
Local marine conservation experts agree that sharks are essential to maintaining the health of Cayman’s oceans and reefs, and that reputation challenges and broader issues — such as pollution, over-fishing and climate change — are negatively impacting local populations.
Jessica Harvey, Cayman project manager with the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, said sensationalist portrayals of sharks as mindless, eating machines contribute to feelings of fear and dislike worldwide.
“Sharks are grossly misunderstood,” she said. “Sharks are vital for healthy oceans and as such they are markers of ocean health. They are what’s known as a keystone species.”
In addition to keeping prey species populations strong, healthy and in check, Harvey explained sharks also provide essential services and resources to other organisms including food, transport, protection and even as scratching posts for fish to remove pesky parasites.
“In summary, the more sharks the better,” Harvey said.
Johanna Kohler, shark project officer at the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, agreed that the main challenge facing shark conservation is public perception, noting sharks are legally protected under the National Conservation Act.
“Unfortunately, many people still believe that sharks are man-eating monsters,” Kohler said. “The Department of Environment relies on the public to help with the conservation of our local sharks as this is a team effort and requires everyone to do their part."
ESSENTIAL TO REEF HEALTH
As a keystone species, sharks are essential to supporting healthy reef ecosystems, Holden said.
“Sharks create control and balance within the marine ecosystem," she said. "Reef ecosystems and corals are reliant upon certain fish eating the algae or reducing the number of coral-eating fish and organisms, so corals can thrive and grow. If this balance is interrupted, corals can struggle to survive."
A two-time Dart Grants recipient, the Central Caribbean Marine Institute — known as CCMI — recently launched a Reef Ecology and Evolution Laboratory to better understand the links between marine ecosystem functions and biodiversity.
Kohler said sharks also entice diving enthusiasts from around the world, contributing to Cayman’s attractiveness as a destination.
“Divers travel the world to see sharks,” Kohler said.
SUPPORTING SHARKS LOCALLY
Marine research and public education are central to the work of the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, the Department of Environment and CCMI. Corporate donations and community support are essential to ensuring sharks continue to thrive in local waters and contribute to healthy marine ecosystems.
“The shark project — research and outreach — is very dependent on non-government funding and the White Tip Fund from the Cayman Islands Brewery currently provides the only financial support for the project,” Kohler said.
Harvey agreed that corporate support is essential to enabling conservation research to continue.
“One satellite tag alone can cost $5,000, not including travel, fuel, accommodation, satellite time, equipment to tag these animals or the scientific resources needed to do the analysis," she said.
This article appears in the October 2021 print edition of the Camana Bay Times.
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