Navigating Shark-Fisher Conflicts
Nearly a quarter of shark species are at risk of extinction. Since 2009, 17 countries have created shark sanctuaries, which make commercial shark fishing, trading, ownership, and sale illegal. However, when shark species recover, they tend to compete for resources shared with humans (e.g., fishes).
Growing reports of shark depredation — sharks damaging fishing gear or consuming caught fishes — have prompted calls for the end to shark sanctuaries in the Bahamas and the Maldives. The authors of this study argue that effective conservation requires dealing with depredation issues.
The study aimed to examine fisher-shark interactions and shark depredation in the Maldives. The Maldives designated its Exclusive Economic Zone a shark sanctuary in 2010, because shark capture was declining and shark-dive tourism had become economically important.
The researchers conducted structured interviews with 103 pelagic and reef fishers to learn about their perceptions of shark interactions and depredation. They also used participatory mapping from 57 reef fishermen to evaluate the overlap between fishing activity and shark presence. They analyzed 50 hours of underwater video footage from ten different sites to determine the reef shark population.
The majority of interviewees were men, with an average age of 46 and more than 20 years of fishing experience. 56% fished reefs, 26% fished in the ocean with a fishing pole (pelagic-PL), and 18% fished in the ocean holding the line in their hands. 81% of fishermen were self-employed, and 67% made more than three-quarters of their living from fishing. Former shark fishermen made up 35% of all fishers in the study and 63% of reef fishers. Following the creation of the shark sanctuary, 75% of shark fishermen switched to reef fishery, 16% to handline fishing in the ocean, and 9% to pelagic-PL.
Most reef fishers and ocean handline fishers had negative shark interactions, including catch depredation or gear damage. On the other hand, more than 75% of ocean pole-and-line fishers reported positive shark interactions, because sharks helped improve their catch success by keeping tuna fishes closer to the surface. Ocean pole-and-line fishers only reported negative shark interactions when they fished with live bait.
Reef fishers reported that they lost about a fifth of their daily earnings to sharks. Ocean handline fishers lost only 2% of their earnings to sharks, while ocean pole-and-line fishers lost 0.2%. Fishers who had previously targeted sharks before the shark sanctuary was implemented reported higher losses to sharks compared to those who had never targeted sharks.
To avoid shark depredation, 74% of reef fishers adjusted their fishing techniques, such as changing location (91%), changing bait (17%), killing sharks (12%), or stopping fishing for the day (2%). Ocean pole-and-line fishers were largely in favor of shark sanctuary regulations, while reef fishers opposed the regulations. Ocean handline fishers had varying opinions. Fishers who reported more damage to their equipment by sharks were less supportive of shark sanctuary regulations. Reef fishermen who reported losing more of their catch to sharks were also less supportive.
Most fishermen felt that depredation increased after the establishment of the sanctuary due to increased shark numbers. However, studies suggest that the reef shark populations have remained stable. The researchers’ participatory mapping and video analysis led to the discovery that sharks are more abundant in good fishing spots, which increases the risk of shark-human conflict.
Because the reefs are fished more heavily, and sharks are more abundant in good fishing spots, fishers may be more likely to interact with sharks than they used to be. Sharks may also associate ships with food, which makes them seek out ships. Because shark hotspots are small compared to the reef as a whole, fishers changing their fishing locations regularly may reduce depredation in reef fisheries.
The researchers say it is important to remember that fishing communities are heterogeneous. Fishers disagree with each other, and some policies may negatively affect some groups more than others. Researchers and policymakers must consult a diverse group of fishers in order to develop solutions that both protect fishers’ welfare and conserve shark populations.
Overall, the study highlights the trade-offs between protecting biodiversity and protecting human welfare, particularly for low-income small-scale fishers. Increased fisher-shark interactions may make it more difficult to reduce poverty and hunger in the Maldives and other developing countries.