The Shark Capital of the World

Sylvia Earle popularized the message: “Without water, no life. No blue, no green.” For countries that rely heavily on eco-tourism, this message hits close to home. With no blue, there are no greenbacks.

The Bahamas sports a healthy and diverse shark population, largely due to a ban on long-line fishing in the early 1990s, followed up by multiple conservation achievements, most notably The Bahamian shark sanctuary in 2011. In Bimini the lush mangrove-fringed lagoon system of the North Sound provides lemon sharks with the perfect, shallow, inshore nursery to develop. Great hammerheads, globally endangered, and naturally skittish have made their way back to the island year after year during the winter months. Meanwhile nurse sharks can be seen year round, socializing in large groups or resting beneath coral ledges. Tiger sharks hunt off the western banks of the island and can also be seen patrolling the sand flats of East Bimini. Caribbean reef sharks, the piece de resistance of Bahamian shark tourism, congregate around Triangle Rocks south of The Biminis. They are so conditioned to feeding that the sound of a boat’s engine is enough to attract them.

A recent study out of Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI) by Dr. Edward Brooks and Andrea Haas cite The Bahamas as the “world’s largest shark diving economy,” contributing $114 million USD to the country annually. This is the first analysis of the economic impact shark tourism has on The Bahamas. According to Brooks and Haas, 19,000 divers, or 43 percent of all dive tourists visiting The Bahamas, traveled to the shallow seas exclusively to see sharks.

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Sean Williams conducting a great hammerhead shark dive for Neal Watson Scuba Center – Photo by Ajit S N

Although the longline fishing ban made it impossible to directly compare the economic benefits of shark tourism to shark fishing, Bahamian fisheries exports bring in $80-million, $34 million less than what shark wildlife tourism generates for the country. This study, at least in The Bahamas, demonstrates that sharks are worth more alive to the country, than they are landed on a boat.

The shark diving industry is now a global enterprise, taking place in 29 different countries and generating $314 million USD in economic expenditures per year. The report could also spur other governments which rely heavily on shark eco-tourism into action to protect these apex predators, said the Pew Charitable Trusts, a supporter of the study.

Just over 50 miles from Miami, Bimini is one of the closest Bahamian islands to the U.S. mainland. Brooks and Haas determined that dedicated shark dives for all shark species in Bimini contributed $1.8 million USD to the island’s economy, and estimated that 55% of the dives was centered around the great hammerhead shark.

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Endangered beauty – Photo by Ajit S N

The great hammerhead shark generates approximately $1 million USD in global shark diving expenditures annually. However, Brooks and Haas concluded that only $583,600 USD of the global expenditures made its way back into the Bahamian economy. Where is the money going? Research fellow and science communicator, David Shiffman, believes it is leaving the country entirely. Many shark enthusiasts arrive on live-aboard dive vessels from other countries, and end up contributing to foreign owned vessels rather than the Bahamian economy.

“Although we’ve long understood [that] sharks are important to The Bahamas’ economy, quantifying this was a critical step to assessing the value of the nation’s conservation measures,” Brooks said in an interview earlier this month.

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Tiger-hammerhead crossover – Photo by Bimini Shark Lab PI Matt Smukall

Bimini Shark Lab:

The Bimini Shark Lab has been conducting its own version of shark dives for its volunteers for many years and the lab’s founder, Dr. Samuel Gruber champions the practice: “The relative risks are next to nil and the relative benefits are great,” Gruber said in his 2015 memoir Shark Doc.

The Caribbean reef shark dive at Triangle Rocks is a highlight for the lab’s staff and volunteers. Researchers began feeding and studying the reef sharks at this location in 1990, and continue to this day. Some 2,500 shark enthusiasts have observed these elegant sharks in their natural setting, according to Shark Lab records.

In the early 2000s, researchers at the Bimini Shark Lab discovered that great hammerheads visit Bimini. In 2008, Shark Lab managers Sean Williams, Katie Grudecki, and Grant Johnson began a tagging project to identify individual hammers that were coming to the island. Once word spread, the hammerheads became a significant attraction for tourist divers. Dr. Tristan Guttridge, lab director and senior scientist at the Bimini Shark Lab, has continued their work with his great hammerhead research published in January 2017 in Frontiers in Marine Science. Guttridge’s paper discusses the extent of movements and connectivity of great hammerheads between the U.S. and Bahamas. A landmark study, the tracking results revealed several great hammerheads made return trips for five consecutive years, and traveled over 3,000km on their migration route!

The Bimini Shark Lab also welcomed new MSc project student Vital Heim to their team. With the dramatic growth in shark tourism, Heim’s main focus is studying the impacts of shark feeding on the behavior and movement ecology of the Bimini great hammerheads.

“My project at the Bimini Shark Lab offers the outstanding opportunity to advance theory by improving our knowledge of the inadequately documented movements and habitat use of (great hammerhead) sharks,” Heim said. Further, through recording the number of food rewards individual sharks receive each day I will be able to explore how this provisioning impacts their local movements, behavior and ultimately the role they play in the local marine ecosystem,” he said.

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Great hammerhead shark -Photo by Eugene Kitsios in collaboration with Bimini Shark Lab

“People who go shark diving become ambassadors for sharks—and that is something we need,” said Gruber in his 2015 memoir, Shark Doc.

Gruber believes that views towards sharks has changed for the better, and nowadays people are rationally concerned for sharks than irrationally afraid. “It amazes me how many people watch the National Geographic and Discovery Channel programs,” Gruber said. “There are still people who hate sharks, but the vast majority is better informed and therefore has sympathy for their plight,” he said in Shark Doc.

Described as an “Eden for sharks” by National Geographic, Bimini is not just a place where sharks aimlessly wander and leave, never to return. After years of ecological research, it has been proven that the North Sound of the island is a nursery for lemon sharks and that they return year after year to this location to birth their young.

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Juvenile lemon shark in the mangroves – Photo by Eugene Kitsios in collaboration with Bimini Shark Lab

“While the Bahamian government is to be applauded for declaring, in 2011, a ban on shark fishing in its Exclusive Economic Zone (up to 200 nautical miles offshore), such protection makes little overall sense if the nursery habitats of the sharks are not also protected,” Gruber said.

Globally, some 50% of mangrove forests have been destroyed, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. Although biologists have long championed their ecological benefits for a wide variety of tropical marine life, developers have viewed them as an obstacle for prime commercial real estate in the past. The intertidal land then being reclaimed for hotels, marinas, golf courses, and the like.

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Red mangroves of Bimini – Photo by Eugene Kitsios in collaboration with Bimini Shark Lab

On North Bimini some 39% of the mangrove wetland, especially on the western and northern sides of the North Sound, have now been destroyed and the substrate repossessed for resort construction, according to Shark Lab records.

While Brooks and Haas’s study highlights the thriving shark populations of The Bahamas created by the 2011 shark sanctuary, and the meaningful conservation work shark eco-tourism brings for the Bahamian economy, it is important to highlight the benefits of international and regional conservation efforts to protect nurseries where these creatures give birth and their offspring matures. Eco-tourism is secondary to the habitat itself, which provides a refuge for these sharks to eventually grow into valuable, highly migratory mega fauna.

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