Rick MacPherson –
Think of a Caribbean island. Go ahead, take your pick. You probably envision powdery white sand beaches, cerulean ocean, and somewhere a beach chair and piña colada just beckoning.
Most visitors to the Caribbean region, the birthplace of sand and sun tourism, manage to find this vision a reality. Ad campaigns targeting tourists boast of crystal clear Caribbean waters teeming with dizzying clouds of colorful reef fish. This is the vision that convinced me as a young boy that coral reefs were too interesting to not want to spend a lifetime studying.
In the 30 years that I’ve been working as a marine biologist, I’ve found the Caribbean to be even more fascinating than my childhood mind could imagine. But I’ve also discovered an unexpected, darker, and increasingly worrisome side of the Caribbean that could jeopardize not only local ocean health, but the economic stability of the region. And that’s because the Caribbean has a shark problem.
No, not the sort of shark problem that conjures up visions of 1975 and Jaws. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Sharks are disappearing from Caribbean reefs.
Image from William Winram
On some reef systems, they have been so drastically reduced that they are considered functionally extinct – in other words, their ecological role is no longer measurable. We know that the Caribbean was historically sharkier than it is today. Historical logs from early Spanish and English explorers documented reef areas that were at times so thick with sharks that sailor’s oars would hit the backs of sharks as they rowed from ship to shore. But these baselines have long since shifted, and the Caribbean we know today is a far more shark-depleted system than the one that had existed for millennia.
Now why does this matter? Particularly for tourists who are traveling long distances for the sand, the sun, and the beach chair. Aren’t shark-free waters a bonus? If your perception of sharks is stuck somewhere in 1975, then perhaps none of this matters. But in the 42 years since Jaws debuted as the first summer blockbuster movie, the scientific community has learned a great deal not only about shark behavior, but also about how sharks are intimately connected to the health of the ocean.
Let’s unpack shark behavior first. Contrary to their depiction in films, sharks are remarkably complex, diverse, and indeed beautiful. Of the just over 500 identified species of sharks, the majority are small in size and deep water dwelling. Sharks evolved in seas long before humans appeared on the scene, and as such we are decidedly not part of their dietary needs. In fact, most sharks I’ve encountered while diving over the years want little to do with me.
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