Sharks have been protected in The Bahamas for more than a generation, Alex Kydd is impressed with the results…
Words and Photographs by Alex Kydd
I came to The Bahamas with mixed feelings about shark feeding. I make my living as a wildlife and underwater photographer working mainly in Australia and Indonesia. As someone who cares deeply about our oceans, I feel very strongly about the plight of sharks. While I was aware of the amazing strides this island nation had made in shark conservation, I did have some qualms about the ethics of using these majestic creatures as entertainment.
However, like everyone else, I had seen the images of great hammerhead sharks, tiger sharks and a host of other species taken in The Bahamas. I know how hard it is to get up close and personal with such animals and I had long wanted to see for myself how it was done in the 30-metre visibility and glaring white sands of this unique corner of the Caribbean.
A bit of preliminary research established some of the basic facts. Globally, sharks have seen a precipitous and devastating decline in populations in recent years, with many species now facing extinction. Conservation efforts have had little discernible impact on this dire state of affairs. However, there is a different story in The Bahamas – the authorities banned longline fishing in 1993 and followed up with the establishment of what was one of the first national shark sanctuaries, in 2011.
Unlike neighbouring Florida, which banned the baiting and feeding of sharks for the purposes of viewing them while scuba diving, The Bahamas actively encouraged a growing trend in shark-related tourism. In 2008 it was estimated that the shark-diving industry contributed $78 million to the local economy. A more recent study, in 2017, estimated that sharks and rays now generate $113.8 million annually for the country.
The bulk of the money comes from tourism (99 per cent), with the balance generated by film and television work and research projects. This accounts for 1.3 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). To give some indication of the relative importance of that input, it is more than double the share of the UK’s GDP generated by agriculture. Another important benefit for The Bahamas is that such tourism has a big impact on its economically disadvantaged outer islands.
This stewardship hasn’t had only an economic impact, it has had a clearly beneficial effect on the number of sharks, which I witnessed as soon as I got underwater. I’ve never seen so many, so often and so close. It was also obvious that the feeding was well organised, the guides and centres articulate advocates of shark conservation, and every shark-feed dive I joined was far from the haphazard circuses I have witnessed in other parts of the world.
Current evidence suggests that the feeds do not dramatically alter shark behaviour, with migration patterns and other traits not affected. Perhaps more research might produce some data to suggest otherwise; meanwhile, you can’t help but be impressed with this multi-million dollar business, and delight in such awesome encounters with animals which are having such an awful time nearly everywhere else on the planet. I’m converted.
The Bimini Shark Lab is located on South Bimini, Bahamas. The facility was first established in 1990 by the late and renowned
Dr Samuel ‘Doc’ Gruber, and attracts marine scientists from around the world to conduct a wide range of studies which focus on sharks and rays. Current projects are looking at anthropogenic impacts on lemon sharks; the ecological role of great hammerheads; the movement networks and habitat preferences of various species of shark; the impact of shark feeds; and shark family trees.
Reference points: some key scientific papers on shark conservation
• Collapse and conservation of shark populations in the Northwest Atlantic, Science, Baum et al, 2003
• Global estimates of shark catches using trade records from commercial markets, Ecology Letters, Clarke et al, 2006
• Patterns and ecosystem consequences of shark declines in the ocean, Ecology Letters, Ferretti et al, 2010
• Valuing individual animals through tourism: Science or speculation? Biological Conservation, Catlin et al, 2013
• Global economic value of shark ecotourism: implications for conservation, Cambridge University Press, Cisneros-Montemayor et al, 2013
• Extinction risk and conservation of the world’s sharks and rays, eLife, Dulvy et al, 2014
• No persistent behavioural effects of scuba diving on reef sharks, Marine Ecology, Bradley et al, 2017
• The contemporary economic value of elasmobranchs in The Bahamas, Biological Conservation, Haas, Fedler & Brooks, 2017