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Road tripping for shark conservation

Published: 
Monday, September 21, 2015
MARC DE VERTEUIL

Rick MacPherson, global shark conservationist: “I’ve been awake and surrounded by shark death here in Trinidad since 4 am. I’m now both physically and emotionally drained. I’ve witnessed more shark mortality in one day in Trinidad than I would document in a year, or more, on other Caribbean islands. 

I’ve never seen shark consumed and traded more any place outside of Asia than I’ve seen in Trinidad. Trinidad is certainly the epicenter of shark consumption within the Caribbean.”

It’s been a long road-tripping day for our little group of three consisting of MacPherson, Stacy Beharry-Baez and myself. We are on a shark survey mission to markets in Trinidad. The purpose is to see what is on sale. 

Beharry-Baez is a Trinidadian PhD, originally from Princes Town, who was recently appointed Senior Associate, Global Shark Conservation at PEW Environment in Washington DC. Her job is to work with government leaders, scientists and fisheries experts to highlight the importance of sharks and urge countries to take measures to protect them. 

MacPherson travels around the world to help governments and NGOs protect sharks. He is equally at home in marine conservation conversation with government ministers as with fisher folk. 

This month MacPherson has travelled nonstop throughout the Caribbean. His quest to save sharks sometimes leaves him with just a few hours sleep. When I tell him we have to leave Port-of-Spain at 4.30 am to do our shark market survey he gives me a good cut-eye. But there is a sparkle in his eyes and he says “anything for the job.” You need a bit of passion to work in conservation.

Well before dawn we reach the wholesale fish market Orange Valley. The first fish vendor’s pickup truck catches our eye. Several distinctively-shaped scalloped hammerhead sharks, caught in Manzanilla on the other side of the island, are on display, ready for sale. They are listed as globally endangered on the IUCN Red List. 

MacPherson points out that just the day before, on September 14, 2015, this species of shark was added to the CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) Appendix II list. That means that they cannot be traded internationally unless they are sourced from a sustainably managed and scientifically assessed shark fishery. CITES listing does nothing to protect sharks locally. It is an international trade restriction, not a fisheries management tool. 

Trinidad has a high consumption of shark but the Fisheries Division maintains that shark is not a targeted species and therefore it does not have a mandate to track local population numbers. Most shark in Trinidad is caught by destructive, nonselective gillnets. They are considered bycatch. Fisheries is working on a National Plan of Action for sharks. Hopefully this will fill in the gaps.

From Orange Valley the next stop is the Fishing Centre at Claxton Bay. There are a lot of boats but not much fish. Spread out on a table is the 12-hour catch of three fishing pirogues. It’s about 60 pounds of fish. One or two of the fish still have some life in them. They spasm occasionally. It is hard to see how the fishers can make a living. Maybe this is one of the reasons why they fight so hard for compensation from the oil and gas companies. Tragically one fisherman tells us how about 30 years ago sawfish, locally called sword shark, could be seen right offshore the fishing depot. They are all long gone. As are the sharks, which are now rarely landed here. The fisherfolk acknowledge that overfishing is to blame but also point to the loss of seagrass beds, mangroves and oil and industrial pollution. 

At the end of the day we find ourselves in the air-conditioned offices of Trinidad Seafood Limited (TSL). TSL is the largest distributor of seafood in T&T. Four refrigerated containers are attached to the warehouse loading bay. TSL used to source a large amount of their product locally but as the coastal fishery collapsed they are forced to import most of their seafood. It sources all its shark from outside of T&T. 

Economically and environmentally the fisheries sector in T&T is unsustainable. Countries around the world have had splendid results in turning around faltering fisheries. Stock assessment, management and enforcement is key. This can save our fisheries, provide sustainable jobs and cut our food import bill. 

For shark conservation the best solution is a shark sanctuary. There is near zero-enforcement. The only realistic thing to do is to close the entire shark fishery, like we did with turtles. A complicating matter is that sharks are bycatch, caught in those destructive gillnets, also just like turtles.

MacPherson never tires of saying that nobody knows how to catch—or not catch—fish better than a fisher. A lot of what is bycatch today will not get entangled in nets once laws are enacted and enforced.

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