Beneath The Waves: A Game-Changer To Shark Science In The Caribbean

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A report by Melissa Cristina Márquez for Forbes.

While most people in the northern hemisphere are blanketed under snow and actual blankets, Beneath the Waves is outside and on the waters of the Caribbean, helping make their vision come true: oceans that have thriving shark populations.

Sharks as predators can regulate the abundance, distribution, and diversity of animals in their environment, impacting the overall health of the marine habitats they call home. They’re famous for removing the sick and weak, and their scraps are an essential food source for scavengers. Across the Caribbean, overexploitation has led to growing concern for shark population health. Despite their popularity, the science on shark ecology and behavior is still developing, and many things remain up for debate or poorly understood.

“Sharks can be controversial – even within the scientific community. It’s incredible, really,” says Dr. Austin Gallagher, Chief Scientist of the conservation NGO Beneath the Waves. “Today, everyone has a chance to produce ground-breaking work on sharks that is timely, relevant, and impactful. I don’t know many other spaces like this. It’s pretty exciting,” he adds.

Beneath the Waves is a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the conservation and scientific knowledge of sharks through cutting-edge science and collaboration. A big part of their focus is on the Caribbean, where today sharks are generally rare visitors to the reefs due to overfishing.

“As a kid, I was lucky to travel throughout the Caribbean on family vacations. Everywhere I went, I would go snorkeling or diving hoping to see sharks, but I was almost always disappointed. It was honestly soul-crushing for a boy who grew up loving these animals” adds Gallagher. “When I eventually discovered The Bahamas during graduate school, I finally saw the sharks – and in big numbers. There are few places worldwide that are as important to sharks than the Bahamas.”

Researchers doing a work up on a shark.

How these Bahamian sharks move in and out of the Bahamian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is also, largely, a mystery. As many shark populations worldwide face increasing pressure from overfishing and habitat destruction, the researchers from Beneath the Waves are studying to see if shark sanctuaries are actually good for sharks or not. Knowing where they go and why allows scientists to examine how useful the national shark sanctuary is in protecting these shark populations.

If a region is designated as a “sanctuary,” it prohibits the commercial fishing of all sharks, prohibits the retention of sharks caught as bycatch, as well as the possession, trade, and sale of sharks and shark products within that country’s EEZ. Sanctuaries have become a popular conservation tool throughout the Caribbean and Pacific, however, some question their efficacy, largely due to the lack of scientific evidence for how sharks and humans use them throughout the year.

In 2018, Beneath the Waves launched one of the first long-term studies focused on understanding the benefits of sanctuaries to sharks, focusing on using the Bahamas shark sanctuary as a model. Beneath the Waves is evaluating the movements of various species of sharks in the Bahamas by tagging sharks with internal acoustic transmitters and monitoring their habitat use throughout the year with fixed receiver stations. They are focusing primarily on Caribbean reef sharks, due to their abundance, economic importance, and similarities to reef sharks in other parts of the world. Other species they will be tagging include nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum), tigers (Galeocerdo cuvier), bulls (Carcharhinus leucas), and hammerheads (Sphyrna species).

“Marine protected areas give us the opportunity to experience the ocean in its natural state,” says Rose Mann, Board Member for Beneath the Waves. “There are few examples where we can see sharks living without interference or disturbance, so we want to study this management tool in real time, and see how it can be improved, adjusted, and then ultimately scaled,” she adds.

Researchers doing a work up on a shark.