St. Maarten shelters its shark populations

POSTED: 10/17/14 4:15 PM

St. Maarten – In its annual report for 2013, the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA), which is a regional network of protected areas whose goal is to safeguard nature in the Dutch Caribbean, reported that sharks are no longer human prey in the waters around St. Maarten, thanks, in large, to the St. Maarten Nature Foundation’s effort to ban the fishing and killing of sharks and rays in the island’s territorial waters. The DCNA works together with park management organizations and other conservation organizations on each of Dutch Caribbean islands, and its board includes representatives from STINAPA Bonaire, CARMABI and Uniek Curaçao, the Saba Conservation Foundation, STENAPA on St. Eustatius and the Nature Foundation and Emilio Wilson Estate Foundation on St Maarten. According to the report, “This research may provide information to help decision makers continually fine-tune and enforce the decree to protect sharks and rays.”

“The ban, along with education about the sharks’ importance to the island’s marine ecosystems, is expected to help preserve a dwindling population,” the report claimed. St. Maarten’s coastal waters once boasted a healthy population of different shark species; however, within the last 10 years, their numbers have declined. Scuba divers, snorkelers and fisherman have encountered fewer sharks over the years. The report highlights the ecological and economic benefit of the sharks’ presence: “Losing the coral reef’s top predator endangers not only the health of the ecosystem, but the tourism industry, which relies on sharks as a major attraction. Local economies would face a major financial blow without sharks.” By preying on old, sick and weak fish, sharks help keep fish populations healthy; they help balance ocean ecosystems, and it is these ocean ecosystems, and the fish in them (sharks included), that attract tourists to St. Maarten. It is important to note that St. Maarten’s economy is tourist-based, which is why it is imperative to safeguard the island’s ecosystems and the flora and fauna that inhabit these ecosystems.

The report stated that “to counter the trend, the St. Maarten Nature Foundation successfully promoted the ban. In order to monitor the new legislation’s effectiveness, the Nature Foundation launched its shark research project. The project educates the local populace about the new protection laws and the ecological importance of sharks to the coral reef and marine ecosystems.” Conservationists on the island have tagged sharks in an effort to monitor their numbers. Thus far, they have tagged 8. By tagging these sharks, the foundation was able to gather “information on the abundance, distribution and possible migratory patterns of the sharks among neighboring islands as well as in their home range in Man of War Shoal Marine Park and St. Maarten’s coastal waters.”

The Man of War Shoal Marine Park, which is the Dutch Caribbean’s newest protected area (established in 2010), is approximately 3,100 hectares in size and “includes the island’s most important reefs and provides safe haven for whales, sharks, sea turtles and hundreds of species of fish.” The protected area, managed by St. Maarten Nature Foundation, has multiple habitats, ranging from coral reefs to sea grass beds to open water. Since the park’s establishment, the nature foundation has reported a 10-20% increase in the overall fish population. “The remarkable growth illustrates the effects when fishing threats are reduced… These protected and healthy populations spill over to areas where fishing is permitted and help provide a sustainable fishing economy in St. Maarten’s waters.”





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