The Successes and Shortcomings of the Honduran Shark Sanctuary
Ecosystems are a matter of balance. While sharks have a reputation for aggression, the role they play as predators is crucial to maintaining the symbiosis of marine environments. Removing sharks and disrupting the natural food web is a detriment to coral health and thus reef ecosystems on the whole. Sharks are often pursued solely for their fins which fetch a high dollar as an ingredient in shark-fin soup. Many coastal nations with a high proximity to reef ecosystems, such as Honduras, have struggled with the tolls overfishing takes on their waters.
In 2011, under President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, Honduras sought to combat this issue by declaring the Honduran Waters—both in the Pacific and Caribbean— a shark sanctuary. The most common sharks in the Honduran Caribbean are nurse sharks, reef sharks and hammerhead sharks which dwell in shallow waters typically close to reefs. This designation, intended to limit the effect of overfishing on the local ecosystems, prohibits the exploitation of its water by placing a permanent moratorium on commercial shark fishing in a 92,665 square mile zone.
While the intention of this decree was commendable, it was implemented hastily and did not first consult the fisherman whose livelihoods depended on the now-illegal industry. According to marine biologist Gabriela Ochoa, a lack of a socio-economic impact study prior to the decree, rendered many unemployed and income-less. Some of the fishermen’s equipment was even confiscated at the time.
In 2016, the moratorium was amended to allow for incidental fishing so as not to penalize fishermen for their unintentional bycatch. This meant that sharks caught by accident could now be sold. It is estimated that incidental fishing represents 40.4% of the global fishing value each year; this is 38.5 million tons. This points to the issue of the ill-defined criteria for what can be considered “incidental”. Gabriela Ochoa believes that now many of the catches are clearly intentional which has assuaged some of the impact of the initial law.
At the moment, there is very little monitoring being done and a quota system is not in place. Because many of the fishing locations are remote, it is difficult to monitor the ‘incidental’ captures.
There’s no simple solution, but utilizing a more gradual quota system to slowly return to the stricter 2011 ban could be a better way to ensure that the livelihoods of those who depend on the shark fishing industry do not suffer. In the long term, limiting the industry would benefit the nation’s economy on the whole due to tourism revenue.
Shark tourism is a potential source of revenue that is often overlooked. A study done in Palau estimates that over its lifetime, a reef shark is worth $1.9 million in ecotourism revenue compared to the market price of $108. Ethics and conservation aside, the slaughter of sharks is fiscally unnecessary and impedes tourism (and thus economic growth) in a region.
Sharks are portrayed as the greatest predators of the animal kingdom, when, in reality, we are. The 2011 ban on shark fishing was a crucial step in the right direction. But, if the intention of the bill is to be achieved, tangible monitoring must first be implemented.
Sophia Turcot is a sophomore undergraduate student at the University of California San Diego pursuing a major in International Relations: Political Science with a minor in Climate Change Sciences. She’s from Los Angeles, CA and was raised in a coastal town where she gained an interest in conservation and ecology, specifically in ocean ecosystems. She believes education plays a vital role in mitigating global climate issues and is excited to be working with Latina Republic to tell the stories of individuals and communities in Latin America and their mission to preserve some of the most biodiverse and beautiful regions in the world.