Air Date: Week of October 14, 2011
(Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas)
A new conservation movement says, “sharks are friends, not food.” Reporter Doug Struck dives into the business of shark tourism in the Bahamas.
GELLERMAN: Sharks have a reputation as dangerous predators, but in reality, they have a lot more to fear from us. We slaughter more than 70 million sharks each year - most are turned into soup. Just their fins are sliced off and used, the animal is then left to die. In fact some species of shark have been reduced by 90 percent.
Earlier this month, California became the fourth US state to ban the sale of shark fins, but in the Bahamas, they’re taking a different approach to protecting the fish: shark tourism. Reporter Doug Struck has our story.
CHIN: Okay Ladies and Gentlemen, if I could have everybody’s attention please.
STRUCK: Dive master Chang Chin, wearing a suit of protective metal mesh over his wetsuit, briefs seven eager scuba divers who've flown to the Bahamas from across the world.
CHIN: We’ll have two really, really cool dives this afternoon. The first one’s going to be along the wall and it’s going to be a free swim with the sharks. All you’re going to see down there is sharks. They are going to be all underneath you, circling around as you make your way down the line. Okay?
STRUCK: The boat rocks gently on the crystal clear Bahamian waters. The divers listen intently, preparing to follow Chin 40 feet down to the deck of an old submerged freighter, where they will be in the middle of a shark feeding frenzy.
CHIN: What we want on this dive is to have minimal or no hand movement at all. When the sharks are moving around, they create a sort of a current or whirlpool effect. Sometimes they can even bump into you, if you are lucky and push you over.
STRUCK: Though some criticize feeding sharks as risky and meddling with nature, the Bahamian government says shark tourism brings in 79 million dollars annually. Stuart Cove, who runs the island’s biggest dive company, ferries nearly 60,000 tourists a year out to snorkel above the sharks or scuba dive with them.
COVE: We went from being a little, sleepy two-boat operation to growing very quickly into a major force in the dive industry. Everybody wanted to come and dive with the sharks. So not only did we build a big business off of it, we’ve got a lot of people coming to the Bahamas for the sharks, and dropping, you know, a couple thousands of dollars a person into the local economy.
STRUCK: It’s Chin’s task to make sure the tourists get what the brochures tout as an "extreme shark adventure."
CHIN: What you’re diving with today: Caribbean Reef Sharks, okay. In the area, there are around about probably 35 to 40 sharks at the moment. The biggest shark, probably about nine-and-a-half feet long, about 400, 450 pounds, and small sharks about two or three feet long, okay. Please enjoy your dive, guys, suit up for your buddy checks. I’ll see you in the water. Thank you.
STRUCK: Underwater, the divers in their wetsuits sink slowly toward the 200-foot freighter, called the Ray of Hope. Dark shadows emerge from the depths, sleek and sinuous. Three, four, eight, ten sharks circle the divers, closer and closer. Chin opens a steel bait box.
The sharks pivot sharply, rushing past the divers in a race to grab the bait. Chin teases and twirls, with the morsels on a short spear, until his bait is nearly exhausted. With the last fish, he lures the shark pack off one side of the freighter, so his spectators can escape to the surface.
STRUCK: So what did you think?
VARELA: It was amazing!
STRUCK: Debbie Varela is a physician from New York City.
VARELA: I’ve been in love with sharks since I was a kid. They’re so calm and they just command a certain respect that I was just mesmerized.
STRUCK: But sharks have value other than luring tourists; they play a crucial environmental role.
Samuel “Doc” Gruber, a marine scientist at the University of Miami, has been studying lemon sharks for 20 years from the beachfront lab he started on Bahamas’ Bimini island. He wades into a thigh-deep tidal mangrove swamp off Bimini with a couple of students. They plan to find and tag the juvenile lemon sharks that hide there from larger predators.
GRUBER: (wading sounds) Oh, there’s a nice big lemon right there. Oh, big boy. That’s almost a meter. There’s another lemon. They’re all over the place.
STRUCK: Sharks are vulnerable, Gruber says, because they grow slowly and have few offspring.
STUDENT: You want to do this with one dip net or two?
GRUBER: One dip net - the biggest one we’ve got. Alright, alright, okay. Now. Now. That’s it. Now don’t get bit. Don’t get bit. This one’s coming. Whoa! Watch out now, he’s not under my control. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy.
So that’s a little electronic tag. They’re called RFID’s, or pit tags. And it reads it.
STUDENT: There we go. 4-8-5-8-7-1-5-3-5-1.
[STUDENT TALKING OFF MIKE]
STRUCK: Gruber says sharks are vital in the ecosystem - they help maintain order in their watery neighborhoods, keeping species in balance. The sea community is like a tapestry, he explains, and if you lost a top predator like the shark, the whole fabric would unravel.
GRUBER: You would produce what’s called a biological cascade. First, the predator pressure on the prey organisms of the sharks would be reduced. They would just explode in their numbers. And, the prey that they feed on, all of a sudden they’d be decimated. You go from a stable system to an oscillating system.
STRUCK: The Bahamas became a shark haven almost by accident. Two decades ago, the government banned commercial fishing that uses miles of hooked lines to snag tuna, swordfish and sharks. With no long-line fishing, and no tradition of cutting off fins for soup, sharks flourished here. Eric Carey, head of the Bahamas’ National Trust, wants to make sure that continues.
CAREY: The great opportunity that we have that we don’t want to miss is that we have this healthy population, and instead of having to come from behind as often happens when trying to save a species, with a stroke of a pen we could insure that this healthy population is protected in perpetuity.
STRUCK: The National Trust is a non-profit that runs the parks of the islands. Along with other environmental groups, the Trust recently won a campaign to get the government to ban all commercial fishing of sharks and any trade in shark fins. There's still an abundance of sharks in the Bahamas, and tourists, business interests and scientists all agree that a live shark is worth a lot more than a dead one.
For Living On Earth, I'm Doug Struck, in Bimini, the Bahamas.
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