Environmental Policy News

New Study Highlights Success of Marine Protected Areas for Large Sharks

A new study provides some of the first-ever evidence for large marine protected areas benefiting threatened sharks in the Atlantic Ocean. Researchers from the non-profit research institute Beneath the Waves (BTW) conducted a two-year analysis of the long-term behavior and movements of sharks within The Bahamas, where sharks are protected in a ‘shark sanctuary,’ a large marine protected area (MPA).

Following the banning of commercial longlining in 1993, The Commonwealth of The Bahamas subsequently designated it’s 243,000 square miles of territorial waters as a shark sanctuary in 2011. The Bahamas is now regarded as the shark capital of the world, attracting thousands of tourists from around the world to engage in its lucrative shark diving industry, valued at over $110 million per year.

“Worldwide, a large proportion of the ocean that has been protected has actually been created with the goal of saving sharks,” said Dr. Austin Gallagher, lead author on the study and Chief Scientist at BTW. “This study breaks new ground in actually being one of the few to scientifically evaluate whether these management actions are effective. Our data suggest that these protections match with the behavior of the animals they were designed to conserve, especially for reef sharks which are the driver of the diving industry” he added.

Using passive telemetry and monitoring over nearly 50 sharks across two island regions, the research also found differing patterns of behavior between reef sharks and tiger sharks.

“This new research helps to demonstrate that shark species with overlapping habitat use can also exhibit vastly different scopes of movement, making them a very tricky group of animals to conserve,” said Dr. Steve Kessel, director of marine research at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and a co-author of the study. “The Bahamas serves as a great example of a government adopting progressive conservation management approaches to account for this great variability of movement between shark species, and therefore preserving biodiversity where it is most critical.”

These new scientific findings underscore the value of regional MPAs to protect sharks, and may support policies for the creation of future large-scale MPAs in the Greater Caribbean region. While results suggest that The Bahamas sanctuary is likely to be working to conserve sharks, the study did not evaluate changes in the populations of sharks, which are slow-growing and would likely take decades to see measurable changes.

“We support the findings from this collaborative effort, which gives us some of the first insights into how our shark conservation policies are working. The findings support the notion that The Bahamas can continue to reap economic benefits of sharks for generations with these protections in place,” said Mr. Eric Carey, Executive Director at Bahamas National Trust.

Journal Reference
The paper, entitled “Spatial connectivity and drivers of large shark habitat use within a large marine protected area in the Caribbean, The Bahamas Shark Sanctuary,” was published in Frontiers in Marine Science, and can be freely downloaded and accessed by anyone. Download an open-access PDF of the full research paper.

The study included authors from multiple NGOs, research organizations, and universities conducting long-term work in The Bahamas. Research efforts exclusively chartered Bahamian operators and businesses throughout the duration of the project, and worked with students from The Exuma Foundation to assist with project data collection.

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