The Caribbean Sea is renowned for its crystal-clear waters, vibrant coral reefs, and a dazzling array of marine life. Among the charismatic inhabitants of this underwater paradise is the Caribbean Reef Sharks (Carcharhinus perezii), a species that plays a crucial role in maintaining the health of coral reef ecosystems.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands will ask for increased protection for the Caribbean reef sharks during next month’s Conference of Parties for the Cartagena Convention (COPs) on Aruba. Caribbean reef sharks play a critical role in maintaining a healthy reef ecosystem and building resilience within the oceans. This increased protection is critical for ensuring a sustainable future for this iconic species.
In the Dutch Caribbean, these apex predators face mounting threats, but there is hope on the horizon. At the upcoming Conference of Parties for the Cartagena Convention (COPs), the Kingdom of the Netherlands will seek increased protection for these magnificent creatures by listing this species on Annex III of the SPAW Protocol. Annex III includes plant and animal species which require additional protection to ensure this species is able to adequately recover their populations in the Wider Caribbean Region.
The Importance of Caribbean Reef Sharks
Caribbean reef sharks thrive in warm, tropical waters of the Caribbean region, with a distribution range that stretches from Florida to Brazil. This species is one of the most encountered reef shark species throughout the whole Caribbean Sea. Growing up to 3 m (9.8ft) in length, this shark is one of the largest apex predators in the reef ecosystem and is at the top of the marine food web, having only a few natural predators.
In addition to being of great economic value, as shark diving is a major draw for divers from around the world. This species is also critical for maintaining balance within the reef ecosystem. Their presence helps regulate the population of smaller prey species.
In turn, this prevents overgrazing on seagrass beds and coral reefs. This also eliminates sick or weak fish from the population and maintains an essential balance to preserve the health and diversity of the entire coral reef.
Threats to the Caribbean Reef Sharks
Despite their ecological and economic significance, Caribbean reef sharks in the Caribbean face numerous threats. This has led to a population reduction estimated to be between 50–79% over the past 29 years.
In the (Dutch) Caribbean this is mainly caused by:
The degradation of coral reefs and seagrass beds due to climate change, pollution, and coastal development has a direct impact on the availability of prey for these sharks. Loss of habitat reduces their ability to find food and shelter.
Overfishing poses one of the most immediate threats to Caribbean reef sharks. They are often caught accidentally by commercial fisheries, where fishermen are targeting other species. Intentional shark fishing also occurs because they are sought after for their fins, used in shark fin soup.
A Call for Increased Protection
There are different organizations and individuals working to protect sharks and their habitats in the Dutch Caribbean. A significant milestone was the establishment of protected areas. Areas such as the Yarari Marine Mammal and Shark Sanctuary between Bonaire, Saba and St. Eustatius. Another milestone was in 2019 when the Dutch government adopted an International Shark Strategy.
The strategy sets out which protective and management actions for sharks and rays are to be taken by the government in all seas and oceans where the Netherlands has influence (including the Dutch Caribbean). However, additional efforts are still needed such as the creation of more marine protected areas, enhanced enforcement, reduction of pollution in the ocean, sustainable fishing practices need to be promoted.
Truly, the Caribbean Reef Sharks know no (political) boundaries. Therefore, their protection requires broadscale conservation efforts within the Dutch Caribbean and beyond.
There is Hope for the Caribbean Reef Sharks
The Caribbean reef shark is a species of paramount importance to the (Dutch) Caribbean’s coral reefs. With the extra protection being requested during the next COPS meeting in Aruba, there is hope that this species will have a healthy future.
We can work together to recognize their ecological significance and the challenges they face. This will ensure a brighter future for the Caribbean Reef Shark in the Dutch Caribbean and beyond.
About the DCNA
The Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA) supports science communication and outreach in the Dutch Caribbean region. They make nature-related scientific information more widely available through amongst others the Dutch Caribbean Biodiversity Database, DCNA’s news platform BioNews and the press. This article contains the results from several scientific studies but the studies themselves are not DCNA studies. No rights can be derived from the content. DCNA is not liable for the content and the in(direct) impacts resulting from publishing this article.