Last week I had the honor of joining colleagues from the World Wildlife Fund, the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and from Research Institutes and Nature Management Organizations from around the region on a research expedition to one of the most significant Marine Protected Areas in the Caribbean: the Saba Bank. During the expedition, on which we remained at sea on an expedition ship for six days, we researched fish populations using scuba in waters that are famously deep and rough. We understood the importance of our work considering that it would contribute to the proper management of fisheries on the Saba Bank and the conservation of its resources for generations to come. My fellow scientists and I researched fish ranging from Grouper to Snapper, Damselfish to Butterflyfish. From Barracuda to what was undoubtedly everyone’s favorite animal: sharks. We saw sharks on every dive on healthy reefs, evidence that these animals keep the population of especially commercially important fish species healthy by maintaining a healthy reef.
On the morning of Wednesday the 21st of October I connected my phone to the satellite receiver of the expedition ship and I was first quite upset, then saddened to see what many of my friends and colleagues from St. Maarten, St. Martin, Anguilla and around the world tagged me in: it was a Facebook video allegedly taken in Anguilla of a Tiger Shark caught close to St. Martin. The animal was dragged to shore; a rope tied around its tail and pulled quite unceremoniously up the beach by a truck. It was then left to suffocate, suffer and die.
I was upset and saddened at how, in 2015, with all of the information out there on how sharks are so important to our ocean’s ecosystem, that they are not the mindless killers that they were made out to be by the media, that they are one of the most endangered animals on the planet, how can us island people who have such a close connection to the sea not realize that we have now removed one of the most important animals in the oceanic food chain? I then realized that misconceptions are still a major issue regarding how we perceive sharks.
Sharks are essential to the health of our ocean: they are top-level ocean predators and their essential role in the ecosystem is to keep it in balance, ensuring that the whole food chain remains intact and functioning. If sharks are removed the population of animals that they prey on will become unbalanced and our reefs, and the fisheries which depend on them, will collapse. The recent Yarari Marine Mammal and Shark Sanctuary that was established through the blessing of Dutch State Secretary for Economic Affairs Sharon Dijksma in September, protects all sharks. And the text establishing the Sanctuary specifically mentions their importance to fisheries.
Sharks are also not the mindless predators we have been led to believe by movies and books and television series. I would recommend your readers to consider this the next time they use their telephone cameras to take a picture of themselves and their friends at say, a nightclub: the act of taking a selfie has killed more people in 2015 than in three years by sharks. And New Yorkers have bitten more people than sharks ever can and ever will, often times with more deadly consequences. Think about this the next time a flight arrives from JFK. Yet we are led to believe that these animals are mindless killing machines out to consume unsuspecting bathers. All this while annually humans kill one hundred million sharks a year. 100.000.000. Annually. Some estimates say that some sharks will be extinct by 2030, followed by many other species of fish, followed by the way of life we know as Caribbean people.
Aside from these facts, all of them established in science, the act of tying up a live animal, which from the video looks like a pregnant female, and dragging it up the beach causing it to suffocate is just cruel. Where is our moral compass, our realization that we are part of a whole with all of the creatures of this planet? Where is the realization that we should and must show compassion for all life? I find it difficult to believe that the people who were seen dragging this animal up the beach and seeing it suffocate and die did not feel some type of remorse, did not consider that this is a living thing that had a life, an animal that has seen things in the ocean that we never will, that has evolved much earlier than us and has formed the foundation of our very existence. I find it hard to acknowledge that somewhere, deep down in their hearts, they did not feel some form of negative emotion in doing this to such a magnificent example of God’s creation.
The Nature Foundation, with its other partners in the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance, has embarked on a three-year shark conservation program that not only involves research and protection but also has a large educational component. It seems as if we have a long way to go in changing people’s perception of sharks, which luckily, are protected in the territorial waters of St. Maarten.
These animals are some of the most misunderstood, maligned yet most important creatures in our seas. Healthy Reefs Need Sharks. And to do this we should collectively Save our Sharks. Not only for their sake but, ultimately, for ours.
Manager Sint Maarten Nature Foundation