MIAMI – Scientists are sounding the alarm: reef sharks are disappearing across the planet’s ocean.
“There’s a lot of areas where sharks should be and they’re not, and that is very concerning,” said Yannis Papastamatiou, an associate professor of marine biology at Florida International University.
A recent study published in Science Journal revealing the sobering fact that reef sharks are fast disappearing across the planet’s ocean with overfishing is driving important species into extinction.
“So what we’ve seen is even species that are fairly common have declined in population sizes -- you know, maybe 60 or 70%,” said FIU marine biologist Mike Heithaus.
Heithaus led the team from FIU that joined more than 150 scientists from all over the world for the ambitious five-year study to document what’s happening to our sharks.
“And what we found is that they’re virtually extinct on 20% of the reefs out there, and in trouble on more than half,” he said.
The project, named “Global Finprint,” focused on the five main species that live on coral reefs: grey reef sharks, blacktip reef, whitetip reef, nurse and Caribbean reef sharks.
“That includes (sharks) here in South Florida. The Florida Keys and our reef track that comes up through South Florida are critically important to us. And we need to have sharks as part of those ecosystems,” Heithaus said.
In order to get real-time data of what was happening,researchers set up bait boxes and underwater video cameras to survey almost 400 reefs in 67 countries and territories, analyzing over 20,000 hours of footage.
But while the study basically found shark depletions all over the world, it also found more robust populations in marine-protected areas and regions with strong fishing limits in place.
“We have pretty good fisheries in the U.S. We’ve had regulations in place for a while,” Papastamatiou said.
As a matter of fact, in Florida, where shark populations have begun to recover.
“And what we see here is we’re doing better than most places, but we aren’t where we need to be, especially for the reef sharks -- we need those populations to grow,” Heithaus said.
But many local anglers are pushing back, saying it’s become more and more difficult to land a fish with more and more sharks stealing their catch, as depredation incidents continue to trend upwards.
“It’s literally every hour of the day, we’re encountering sharks out here — it’s like non-stop,” said Capt. Billy Delph, of Delph Fishing Charters.
The situation prompted NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to consider making changes to existing rules that limit how many sharks, the size, and what species of sharks can be fished and retained, basically undoing years of protective regulations that have helped sharks come back.
“In your opinion, do we have an overpopulation of sharks in Florida?” Local 10′s Louis Aguirre asked Papastamatiou.
“No, no,” Papastamatiou said. “So you may be seeing some population starting to come back up. That’s very different from saying they’re overpopulated and they’ve exploded. That’s simply some sign of recovery from being overfished.”
And scientists say that’s also a sign of a healthy ocean. Sharks keep fisheries in balance and prevent ocean pandemics by eating diseased and distressed marine life. If anything, the study says sharks need more protections, not less and outlines specific recommendations.
“Like banning gillnets in some places, creating marine-protected areas, controlling the effort of long lines. And that way, if we do it in enough places, then we can see sharks rebuilding,” FIU post-doctoral associate Diego Cardenosa said.
“We also see that sharks and people can coexist. If you have strong fisheries regulations, we can have people getting the resources they need out on the ocean, but also healthy shark populations,” Heithaus said.
NOAA has yet to decide if it will pass Amendment 16 that would modify shark management regulations that have been in place since 2006..Public comments just wrapped up this week.
And while scientists admit depredation incidents are on the rise, the solution is not to go out there and kill more sharks, but rather developing innovations and technologies to deter sharks from fishing lines.
Public comments just wrapped up this week. And while scientists admit depredation incidents are on the rise, the solution is not to go out there and kill more sharks, but rather developing innovations and technologies to deter sharks from fishing lines.
STUDY CAN BE VIEWED BELOW: