The islands of the Bahamas are one of the few success stories in the world of shark conservation. Because of protective initiatives over the past quarter decade, the region’s shark populations have remained far healthier than in most of the world. And in 2011, the island nation became one big shark sanctuary, banning shark fishing in the surrounding waters. The Bahamas are now one of the best places on the planet to see sharks in their natural environment, which has naturally drawn a lot of shark tourism, which in turn has lead to more money and attention to shark conservation. Fusion’s environmental correspondent Nicolas Ibargüen traveled to the Bahamas to explore whether ecotourism could be the key to saving the world’s sharks.
“We recognized the importance of our marine environment… as a result of that, we had to ensure that the environment itself was maintained,” said Earlston McPhee, Director of Sustainable Tourism for the Bahamas, explaining the process through which the island nation decided to become a shark sanctuary. “If the shark disappears, of course, it takes everything as an imbalance… in any system, if there is an imbalance, the structure falls.”
During his trip to the Bahamas, Ibargüen met with shark conservationists, tourism organizers and even former shark fishermen, who all explained the benefits of the burgeoning eco-tourism market. “We have the richest shark population in the world here, the most diverse shark population in the world,” explained Stuart Cove, founder of one of the largest diving operations in the area. “We have shown that they [sharks] bring in several hundred million dollars per year that are spread out the economy—with hotels, restaurants, shopping—because people come to the Bahamas just to see sharks.” As Cove explains, the conservation of sharks has paid off big time for the Bahamas; a study released in 2017 suggested that shark tourism generates over $100 annually for the Bahamas.
“Think about the economy really benefiting from people who come to the country specifically because they want to go swim with sharks,” explained Casuarina McKinney-Lambert, Executive Director of the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation. “It may not just be the diver who is taking somebody out to see the sharks but it is also the taxi driver and the hotels and the restaurants and all of these other parts of our tourism industry that is benefiting because we have done such a good jobs in the Bahamas protecting our sharks.”
The protection of sharks also means that tourists have the opportunity to view species in the Bahamas that would be near impossible to see almost anywhere else. Among these rarities are oceanic white tip sharks and tiger sharks, which are pelagic sharks that are usually only found only in deep waters. “You will be amazed at how comfortable they are having us in the water,” explained Hayley-Jo Carr, course director at Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas, right before she and Ibargüen jumped into the water with the sharks. “We are not a threat to them, they do not really know who we are or what we are…so stay super relaxed.”
While it’s true that the sharks pose little threat to humans, the reverse isn’t as true. And even with the Bahamas protections in place, the region’s sharks are still at risk; as sharks are highly migratory species, traveling thousands of miles, it’s critical that they’re protected globally, not just in a few select countries.
“I believe many of the countries share the same sharks, so, if we protect sharks in the Bahamas, when they go down to Cuba, they get fished,” explained Cove. “Of course, they have a poor country and they have to eat, so, we understand sustainable fishing… [but] the Cuban government now is working to come up with a policy to have sustainable numbers into the future.” Cove explained that as more countries in the Caribbean are realizing the economic potential of shark tourism, more shark protections will likely come.
“It is in our best interest,” explained McPhee. “As a result, of what we have done in the Bahamas and a number of other destinations, [people] are now rising up and are actually putting in place this whole shark conservation because they see it in their best interest."
Shark Tourism will premiere on Fusion TV on June 8th at 10pm ET