MAHO, St Maarten, Wednesday June 29, 2016 – Sir Richard Branson’s environmental advocacy in the Caribbean is well known, from his support for the green energy movement to his push for ocean conservation, the latter of which was recently seen at a three-day shark conservation symposium held at the Sonesta Ocean Point resort in Maho, St Maarten.
During the symposium, St Maarten Prime Minister William Marlin and Wayne Panton, minister of financial services, commerce, and environment for the Cayman Islands announced that their exclusive economic zones (EEZs) were completely closed to commercial shark fishing.
Together, the two new sanctuaries cover a total of 46,190 square miles (119,631 square kilometres) and raise the total number of Caribbean sanctuaries to seven.
Additionally, Curacao and Grenada announced that they will establish legislation this year that will protect sharks in their waters.
Government leaders and Branson were joined by global shark experts and representatives from The Pew Charitable Trusts and other nongovernmental organizations, at a press conference to champion the new protected areas.
Virgin boss Branson, who owns a home on his private island in the British Virgin Islands, said: “We applaud the steps taken by Caribbean island governments to conserve sharks in their waters. To these governments, sharks are worth far more alive than dead. We are delighted and encouraged to see this bold action being taken to protect Caribbean ecosystems and bolster ecotourism industries.”
— Jillian Morris-Brake (@BiminiSharkGirl) June 20, 2016
Luke Warwick, director of Pew’s global shark conservation campaign, noted: “St Maarten and the Cayman Islands have joined a progressive group of leaders in global shark conservation by choosing to fully protect the diverse but vulnerable shark and ray species found in their waters.
“We look forward to continued expansion of shark conservation in the Caribbean to secure the region as a safe haven for threatened shark species.”
“Establishing sanctuaries to protect all sharks makes clear that these top predators warrant the same status as other vulnerable marine wildlife that help attract ecotourism, such as turtles and whales,” Warwick added.
The symposium followed a meeting Branson co-hosted in the Bahamas last year, urging regional governments to enact shark sanctuaries, a call quickly met by the Dutch Caribbean islands of Bonaire and Saba, joining existing shark sanctuaries in the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands.
This month the Virgin mogul drew attention to new research led by Dr Edd Brooks at the Cape Eleuthera Institute and presented at the symposium, which showed that sharks generate US$113 million annually in direct expenditure and value added through tourism to the economy in the Bahamas.
— The Watermen Project (@WatermenProject) June 25, 2016
Branson has long been among the world’s leading advocates for wider ocean conservation, arguing for conservation as a driver of the tourism economy.
The shark conservation symposium was co-hosted by the government of St Maarten, the St Maarten Nature Foundation, the Bahamas National Trust, and The Pew Charitable Trusts.
At the symposium, Caribbean leaders had the opportunity to learn from global shark experts, such as Boris Worm, professor in marine conservation biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and discuss shark conservation and shark-related tourism in their jurisdictions.
Since 2009, Pew has worked with governments around the world to establish shark sanctuaries in their territorial waters. The creation of these sanctuaries in the Caribbean brings the total number of sanctuaries worldwide to 14, covering 6 million square miles (15.5 million square kilometres), an area bigger than Canada.
Worldwide, at least 100 million sharks are killed each year in commercial fisheries, with nearly 30 percent of all known shark species assessed by scientists threatened with extinction.
Sharks play an important role in maintaining the health of the entire ocean, but they grow and reproduce slowly, which makes them particularly vulnerable to overfishing.