May 30, 2023 -(Hammerhead) sharks play an important role in maintaining healthy oceans, which is important for the fisheries and the economy of the Caribbean islands. Later this year, the Dutch and French governments will officially propose that three species of hammerhead sharks are added to the SPAW Protocol Annex II list during the next Conference of the parties for the Cartagena Convention (COPS) on Aruba. This increased protection will give the Dutch Caribbean the tools they need to further protect these vital sharks moving forward.
Hammerhead sharks, Genus Sphyrna, are found all around the world. Three of nine world’s species can be found in the Caribbean, including the scalloped hammerhead, the smooth hammerhead, and the great hammerhead. These species have a similar overall appearance, which makes identifying these sharks at the species level complicated. This has resulted in varying success for management and conservation actions, allowing loopholes for unwanted hammerhead shark mortalities to continue.
(Hammerhead) sharks are apex predators, which means that they are at the top of its food web and have no natural predators. Sharks help keep their prey population healthy by eating the sick and injured, while also affecting their prey’s distribution. In healthy oceans, sharks help to maintain stable fish stocks and healthy coral reefs and seagrass beds, which is important for the fisheries and the economy (tourism) of the islands. (Hammerhead) sharks are vulnerable to human threats. Overfishing, pollution, and climate change are all factors that can have a negative impact on these animals.
There are many organizations and individuals working to protect hammerhead sharks and their habitats in the Caribbean. A significant milestone was the establishment of protected areas such as the Yarari Marine Mammal and Shark Sanctuary between the BES islands. However, additional efforts are crucial to create more marine protected areas, reduce pollution in the ocean, and promote sustainable fishing practices.
The SPAW Protocol is a regional agreement where member counties have committed to the protection and sustainable use of coastal and marine biodiversity within the Wider Caribbean Region. Within this agreement, species have been divided into three lists of varying levels of protection, named Annex I, II and III. Annexes I and II include a list of species which require the highest level of protection. For these species the possession, trade or even disturbance of these species is forbidden. Annex III includes a list of species of which the exploitation is authorized, but highly regulated.
In 2017, hammerhead sharks were added to the Annex III list of the SPAW Protocol, but this has not resulted in the desired recovery of their populations. Therefore, the Kingdom of the Netherlands along with the Republic of France plan to submit a proposal during the next conference of the parties for the Cartagena Convention (COPS) to upgrade these sharks to the Annex II list. This will allow for these species to receive additional protection moving forward, ensuring these sharks are free to roam the Caribbean waters and contribute to healthy ecosystems for years to come.