Live every week like it’s Shark Week
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The United States is a nation of shark-lovers. Just ask Discovery Channel what week of the year brings its biggest audience. Despite this infatuation, global stewardship of sharks has a spotty record at best. Nevertheless, the United States and its neighbor to the east, the Bahamas, are setting new world standards for shark conservation, albeit in very different ways.

Robust shark populations benefit the coastal communities that live beside them, and not just for fishing. Although we need more research on this topic, there is evidence that if sharks weren’t there some animals that they eat would increase in number or change their behavior, with those effects rippling throughout the food web. Sharks also help the environment just by pooping. By eating in one place and defecating in another they enrich coral reefs and possibly other habitats with vital nutrients.

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And sharks help fuel our coastal economies – in some places much, much more so alive than dead.

No country knows this better than the Bahamas. A tropical island nation with a tourism-based economy, the Bahamas saw the benefit of protecting dive sites to attract tourists and film crews eager to see sharks, so the government prohibited the types of fishing gear used by commercial fishermen to catch sharks in large quantities: gillnets and longlines. The Bahamas then cashed in, building a “grey economy” based on shark-dive tourism that brings in more than $100 million each year. In 2011 the government formalized full protection for all sharks, and today the Bahamas remains a top destination for tourists interested is seeing healthy shark populations.

I have seen this first-hand over the last eight years of trips to the Bahamas to study and record sharks with my research team, Global FinPrint (www.globalfinprint.org), with support from the Moore Bahamas Foundation and Paul G. Allen Philanthropies. Our team visited more than 20 islands in the Bahamas looking for sharks. We captured more than 700 hours of baited remote underwater video aimed at estimating how common sharks are there compared to other nations where shark fishing is allowed. What we have found has been a revelation—and a testament to great stewardship. Sharks of a variety of species are thriving in the Bahamas. Our baited cameras filmed an average of one shark every 45 minutes, capturing 10 different species.

The results in the Bahamas don’t happen by accident, and throughout much of the rest of the world fishing is causing substantial declines in many shark populations. But what can shark-fishing countries do? Following the Bahamas model entails closing all shark fisheries and—importantly—the gear types that catch a lot of sharks, otherwise the sharks keep getting caught and there is no benefit to the rule. This can lead to economic hardship for fishing communities, often in economically impoverished regions.

A handful of wealthy countries, including the United States, have harnessed science to figure out how many sharks of each species can be caught while still allowing enough to remain and reproduce to keep the population from shrinking. The catch is then held as close to this level as possible by regulatory agencies. This is an expensive way to go and requires a great deal of funding and coordination. But it can work.

So what are the prospects for shark-fishing nations without the resources of the U.S. and unable to follow the lead of the Bahamas? Many countries can adopt a hybrid approach. They can set aside protected areas where fishing for sharks-and other forms of fishing- are not permitted. If they can make these areas large enough and put them over important shark habitats, these areas could act as refuges similar to the way the entirety of the Bahamas is working for sharks. Outside of protected areas, these countries can place some limits on shark catch. They may have to work with less information and employ methods that are easier to track—such as prohibiting certain fishing gear or having a closed season for shark fishing—simply because they don’t have the money and the expertise that the United States has.

But we can help. Our federal government can provide resources and lessons in shark fisheries stewardship to other countries. As citizens, we can donate to conservation organizations that do the basic, nitty-gritty research overseas that is necessary for fisheries management. Your next vacation choice can be to go shark watching in a country like the Bahamas to reward them for doing such a great job with shark conservation. And, for the truly inspired, we can volunteer our time and travel overseas to help support these efforts.

If you love sharks during Shark Week, there are 51 additional weeks in the year where the world’s sharks could use your help.

Dr. Demian Chapman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Florida International University and Lead Scientist of the Global FinPrint Project, the world's largest shark survey.