Unique partnership to secure a future for sharks

In the Gulf of Mexico, we work with researchers and regulators to preserve sharks

EDF leads tri-national effort to protect sharks in Gulf of Mexico

Since sharks are highly migratory, international cooperation is vital to their conservation.

In the Gulf of Mexico, saving sharks requires the cooperation of the United States, Mexico and Cuba.

We’re working to link these countries in a shark conservation program—the first of its kind in the world.

Sharks have swum the oceans for more than 400 million years, before there were dinosaurs. But human activity has pushed these magnificent predators to the brink. People kill tens of millions of them a year, many for their fins, which sell for hundreds of dollars a pound in Asian markets.

In many coastal communities, sharks are an important source of food and income. Unfortunately, we’re killing some shark species far faster than they can breed.

“In U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico waters, populations of large sharks, including tigers and hammerheads, have fallen by as much as 90%,” says Douglas Rader, Ph.D., EDF’s chief oceans scientist. The Gulf and the Caribbean have 100 different shark species, one fifth of the world’s shark species.

Populations of large sharks, including tigers and hammerheads, have fallen by as much as 90%.

Douglas Rader, Ph.D. EDF chief oceans scientist

To help the sharks rebound, we are working with the Mote Marine Laboratory of Sarasota, FL, a leader in shark research, to link the United States, Mexico and Cuba in a cooperative program to rebuild shark populations in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tri-national approach overcomes hurdles

There is no easy or quick answer to this crisis, in part because many sharks are highly migratory, they take a long time to reach maturity and they have very few young. In many coastal communities, sharks are a vital economic resource.

“We think the tri-national approach we’re taking with Mote is the best way to eventually control shark overfishing in the area,” says Pam Baker, EDF’s director of strategic conservation initiatives for the Gulf. Critical to success is gaining a deep understanding of the fisheries in the three countries and how innovative management can save fish and improve the livelihoods of fishermen.

100 different shark species in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean

Among the remedies being studied are catch shares, an approach we have successfully used in the United States and Mexico. Under catch shares, fishermen are assigned a percentage of the total allowable catch for a species. This gives them an incentive to conserve fish and eliminates destructive practices that cause overfishing.

Trusting relationships are the foundation for progress 

The challenges are significant. The United States, Cuba and Mexico each have their own economic and conservation priorities. But we have built long-standing, trusted relationships with officials and grassroots organizations in all three countries, and there is a shared concern over the fate of sharks.

Last year, we and our partners convened the first meeting of a tri-national shark work group, laying the foundation for an effective conservation program.

Researchers from the University of Havana have begun compiling a census of Cuba’s shark populations along the Gulf Coast. Mote researchers are mapping the migration routes and populations of sharks off Florida’s west coast, and U.S. regulators are exploring catch share management for Gulf sharks. We’re also working with our Mexican partners to expand research to study shark nursery areas and migration patterns in coastal waters off Mexico.

The results of our collaboration will form the basis for more effective management and for setting sustainable catch limits—the first steps toward ensuring a future for sharks in the Gulf of Mexico.

“This tri-national program for sharks can be a powerful model for management of other highly migratory species like tuna,” says Diane Regas, EDF’s Senior Vice President for Programs.