Sharks are part of the Class Chondrichthyes and the Subclass: Elasmobranchs which consist of sharks, rays and skates, that have skeletons made of cartilage, not bone. Sharks are fish that have been around way longer than we, humans have. Most sharks are slow growing species that sexually mature at a late age and give birth to few live young, which makes them susceptible to the pressures of overfishing.
Importance of Sharks
These species play a critical role in maintaining balance in marine ecosystems. In their role as apex predators in the food chain, they remove old and sick individuals keeping populations healthy and serving as indicators of ocean health. When sharks are overfished, other fisheries have the potential to collapse.
So, do we have sharks in Barbados?
Yes, we do. This is not anything new with a small shark fishery existing on the island. As someone who was born and bred in Barbados and grew up in a family of fishers, I remember many stories from my grandfather and uncles of experiences with sharks when fishing, spearfishing or diving.
As someone who has studied sharks and rays in Barbados and the Caribbean for the past few years and is currently doing research on elasmobranch species, I can confirm that the waters of Barbados do contain shark species.
The poster below was generated during my work on the shark fishery of Barbados with FAO. From conducting interviews with fisherfolk, divers and spearfishers at markets & landing sites around the island as well as observing and identifying species being caught, primarily by the local longline fleet, and sighted by divers, a poster with the most common shark species was produced. It must be noted that this poster contains both nearshore and reef associated shark and ray species (mainly found on the North and East of the island) as well as offshore species (those most commonly landed and sold in the market).
The local name for a Caribbean Reef shark is a ‘smooth skin’ shark. However, ‘smooth skin’ shark is also the common name globally for silky sharks – just to confuse things and Bajans call most sharks smooth skin. Ya copy?
Fishers also catch thresher and lemon sharks and potentially others, which have not been included as yet in the poster.
I am currently collaborating with https://globalfinprint.org, the world’s largest shark and ray survey in a worldwide effort to assess coral reef sharks and rays, understand how they affect vanishing ecosystems and inform emerging conservation actions. Over the past week, sampling the reefs of the island to determine diversity and abundance of predatory species including elasmobranchs has taken place. We have been deploying baited remote underwater videos (BRUVS) that will also help to confirm some of the species sighted by divers and caught by fishers in the waters of the island.
Here is a screenshot of one of our trips in which a Caribbean reef shark (‘smooth skin’) cruises by on the South east coast of the island.
So yes Barbados has a small shark fishery which I have worked with BARNUFO and fisherfolk as well as the Fisheries Division to make it as sustainable as possible and increase education to promote conservation of these crucial species.
So let’s talk about the great fear of sharks. Sharks vs humans: Are they the danger, or are we?
Many humans have a great fear of sharks, fuelled by a combination of the media’s stereotypic characterisation of sharks as well as shark attack scenes in Hollywood films such as Jaws, which are filled with misinformation and only increase unnecessary fear.
A conservative estimate of 100 million sharks are killed by humans every year; that’s 11,417 sharks killed per hour, mainly for the shark fin trade. The fins are cut off the shark and the carcasses dumped in the sea.
Of the approximately 500 different species of sharks found in the world’s oceans, only about a dozen of these should be considered particularly dangerous when encountered. The shark species responsible for most unprovoked attacks on humans are the Great white, tiger and bull species. All sharks, are however predators and are capable of inflicting wounds if provoked and as such should be treated with respect when encountered.
Now what about shark attacks in Barbados?
According to the Global Shark Attack File from the Shark Research Institute , there have been 4 reported “unprovoked attacks” (2 fatal) in Barbados, the last one being in 1922. “Unprovoked attacks” are defined as incidents where an attack on a live human occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark. There may very well have been others but they have not been reported. I have also heard of attacks occurring when shore whaling for humpback whales used to occur in Speightstown. They would tow in the dead whales, which resulted in a bay of blood and consequently attracted sharks.
In my lifetime, there have been a few shark interactions between sharks and divers, spearfishers and fishers in which sharks may steal bait from spearfishers or when caught by fishers and being hauled into the boat they have caused some damage. Just remember, sharks are the bosses of the seas. They are predators and have the capability to attack. When you enter areas where it is known that sharks are found, you are entering their home and must be respectful and wary of that.
So let’s fight the fear with facts. There are many other things that are more likely to kill you than sharks: alligators, lightning, tornados, box jellyfish, mosquito borne diseases, smoking and alcohol related illnesses, gun violence and more.
And if you must fear sharks, it is their consumption that you should be thinking about. Pay closer attention to the consumption of sharks as many species contain high levels of mercury. When it accumulates, it acts as a neurotoxin and has the ability to negatively impact the human nervous system. It is suggested that children and pregnant women do not eat shark due to potential health implications.
Although the relative risk of a shark attack is small, risks should always be minimised whenever possible in any activity. Here are some tips to decrease your already small chance of becoming victim in a shark attack:
- Always stay in groups since sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual.
- Avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight hours when sharks are most active and have a competitive sensory advantage.
- Avoid waters with known effluents or sewage and those being used by sport or commercial fisherman, especially if there are signs of bait fishes or feeding activity. Diving seabirds are good indicators of such action.
- Use extra caution when waters are murky and avoid uneven tanning and bright colored clothing — sharks see contrast particularly well.
- Refrain from excess splashing and do not allow pets in the water because of their erratic movements.
- Exercise caution when occupying the area between sandbars or near steep dropoffs — these are favorite hangouts for sharks.
- Do not enter the water if sharks are known to be present and evacuate the water if sharks are seen while there. And, of course, do not harass a shark if you see one!
If you see a shark when in the water, it is best to face them and not take your eyes off them. If diving, also dive with a buddy and if spearfishing, conceal fish in a suitable bag like a crocus bag. Even though I do not encourage harming species, if you are attacked, here is what to do: concentrate your blows against the eyes, gills or snouts.
Unfortunately sharks are a very misunderstood species so I would like to invite you to check out Sharks in Barbados on Facebook to join the conversation where I try to increase education and awareness on sharks in the island and world.