The Bahamas Shark Sanctuary – A Model for Large Marine Protected Areas in the Caribbean

The ocean and shark conservation group Beneath the Waves – a nonprofit focused on conducting impactful research through cutting edge technology – has been returning to The Bahamas for years. The team is drawn with one goal in mind: to study sharks within The Bahamas Shark Sanctuary, a Marine Protected Area (MPA) established in 2011 that covers nearly 250,000 square miles around the island chain. 

Shark sanctuaries are management tools for coastal and island governments seeking to reduce shark mortality in their waters. Sanctuary designations typically prohibit the commercial fishing of all sharks, the retention of sharks caught as bycatch, and the possession, trade, and sale of sharks and shark products within a country’s full exclusive economic zone (EEZ). 

While this might sound like a no-brainer to ocean lovers and conservationists, establishing marine protected areas can be a long and arduous process involving many stakeholders at local, national, and international levels. To create (and maintain) MPAs, it is critical that scientific data is provided on both the effectiveness of the MPA and the economic benefits to the region. 

In 2018, Beneath the Waves launched one of the first long-term studies focused on the former: seeking to understand the benefits of shark sanctuaries to sharks throughout the year, with a specific long-term project focusing on The Bahamas Shark Sanctuary. 

Already in 2020, Beneath the Waves has returned to The Bahamas on three separate research trips, working diligently and methodically to find, study, and document the sharks of the region. The team uses many different research tools, and some of the latest cutting-edge technology (including Paralenz Dive+ cameras) to accomplish their research objectives and collect the highest-quality data possible.

Beneath the Waves is monitoring the Shark Sanctuary habitat throughout the year, by implanting various species of sharks in The Bahamas with internal acoustic transmitters. These tags transmit frequencies that are specific to each individual shark, which ping to and are logged by an array of fixed acoustic receivers that are strategically placed throughout the island chain. Efforts are focusing primarily on Caribbean reef sharks, which are a strong model species due to their abundance in the region, coastal life histories, proven economic importance through diving and ecotourism, and similarities to other reef sharks around the world. 

Beneath the Waves is currently on an expedition in Exuma, The Bahamas, continuing their ongoing population studies in the region along with collecting old acoustic receivers, downloading the months of logged data, and setting more receivers – expanding their reach in the hopes of expanding their potential policy impact. The data collected will shed light into the proportion of time these tagged sharks remain inside The Bahamas’ EEZ, the degree of connectivity between the islands within the EEZ, the social networks of shark species in the region, and whether these tagged sharks are traveling – and ‘pinging’ – to other places in the Atlantic and Caribbean oceans. 

In collaborating with other researchers, organizations, local groups and policymakers, Beneath the Waves is hoping that the data they collect through this long-term study will advance the scientific consensus on this valuable management tool, and influence the establishment of new – and large – MPAs throughout the Caribbean. 

Use of Paralenz Dive Camera+ in Remote Underwater Research 

On their current expedition in Exuma, The Bahamas, the conservation group Beneath the Waves is using Paralenz Dive + cameras to non-invasively record and document the behaviors of sharks and other marine life in The Bahamas. 

The team of marine biologists uses BRUV (Baited Remote Underwater Video) rigs, a common research tool for conservation biologists. These rigs are weighted and deployed at specified depths within their research areas, with cameras attached to record the surrounding environment continuously. 

While the expedition is still underway, and more data is yet to be collected, the team has already captured footage of multiple juvenile sharks swimming past the Paralenz cameras, from multiple species. The scientists use the footage to identify species, estimate age and size, observe ecological interactions, and document other marine life or environmental changes. While The Bahamas are known for their crystal-clear blue waters, depending on the depth, tides, currents, and winds, the visibility around the BRUV rigs can be quite low – which is why the use of high-quality cameras like the Paralenz Dive Camera+ is essential for the scientists’ research.

Written by Beneath the Waves.

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