There’s no doubt that sharks have an image problem. And it’s probably fair to say that a single blockbuster film did much of the damage. The runaway success of Jaws led to these fish – all 500 or so species – being collectively typecast as terrifying and dangerous denizens of the deep, to be feared and destroyed. And we humans are playing our assigned role perfectly, our prejudices confirmed by unhelpful sensationalist media headlines.

But what we forget, when we stare into those rows of teeth, are the critical relationships between sharks and their less-toothy marine neighbours. We forget the hundreds of thousands of years of evolution that have intertwined the fate of all marine life into one very complex, very sensitive, web.

As apex predators, sharks are responsible for orchestrating the dynamics of much of the marine life that sits lower in the food web. If sharks disappear, the finely tuned oceanic network could plunge into chaos – and that’s exactly what is happening today.

Hunting for meat and fins, accidental by-catch and habitat loss are pushing sharks further towards the brink of extinction, and this has serious implications not only for the sharks themselves, but also for the wider marine environment, including the people who depend on it. Devastatingly, the worst impacts are being felt in those areas that have already seen declines in biodiversity due to other pressures.

Sharks are key players in the wider marine ecosystem, both directly and indirectly guiding the fortunes of ocean biodiversity. Credit: Fundação Maio Biodiversidade
Sharks are key players in the wider marine ecosystem, both directly and indirectly guiding the fortunes of ocean biodiversity. Credit: Fundação Maio Biodiversidade

Hotspot haven

Despite its remote location off the west coast of Africa, Cape Verde is not immune from these pressures. Here, the main threat to sharks is overharvesting, with industrial and semi-industrial fishing rapidly depleting shark prey stocks. Indiscriminate fishing methods lead to sharks being hauled in alongside target species, and nets are lost or discarded in the ocean, destined for another life as ‘ghost’ gear, trapping unsuspecting marine creatures.

On Cape Verde’s more popular islands, coastal development brings destruction of shark feeding and nursing grounds, and booming tourism means more boats and increasing marine pollution. A particularly worrying trend is the growing international advertisement of Cape Verde as a hotspot for shark sport fishing – big game fishers flock to the area and often leave individual sharks injured as a result of poor handling.

A limited number of refuges still remain, however, in which sharks can find safe forage and breeding sites. One such sanctuary is the island of Brava, where Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been working since 2017 to shield whale sharks, tiger sharks and highly threatened hammerhead sharks from the pressures that have afflicted them elsewhere in Cape Verde.

The natural environment provides a key source of income for most of Cape Verde’s population, and many rely on artisanal fishing for protein. From conducting interviews and observing catches, it was clear that, despite being a relatively low-risk site for sharks, the waters of Brava still present hazards. By-catch from small-scale fishing and – due to their bad reputation among fishers – some targeted fishing and finning, would leave sharks in peril, unless something was done.

Changing attitudes and changing fortunes

We know that perceptions can be changed. Not so long ago, Cape Verde’s turtles were imperilled by local consumption of their meat and eggs. Now, thanks to collaboration between local NGOs, including our longstanding partner, Fundação Maio Biodiversidade, Cape Verde has a strong national turtle conservation network. It is our intention to establish a shark equivalent.

Our outreach work so far, in partnership with local conservation organisation, Biflores, has been very successful in changing fishers’ attitudes towards sharks – in almost all cases, reversing their negative opinions completely.

Going forward, we will deliver expert training in the safe handling of sharks when they are caught accidentally – including the safe removal of hooks from inside sharks’ jaws. Additionally, we will work with fishers to advise alternative fishing locations where sharks can be avoided and prey species have not been overfished. We hope that, in time, this work will result in the adoption of sustainable practices within the fisheries of Brava.

By working closely with local fisher communities, we hope to raise the prospects for Cape Verde’s shark populations. Credit: Jeff Wilson/FFI
By working closely with local fisher communities, we hope to raise the prospects for Cape Verde’s shark populations. Credit: Jeff Wilson/FFI

Greater understanding of how we can protect local shark nurseries will also be crucial. We plan to undertake research to discover which species come to breed, and where. Armed with this information, we will be better equipped to safeguard these agglomerations of young sharks through, for example, more effective management of marine protected areas (MPAs) and restrictions on fishing.

Widespread support from all levels of society in Cape Verde will be key to the long-term success of our efforts to ensure that islands such as Brava continuing to provide a safe haven for sharks. The MPAs surrounding Cape Verde have the potential to serve as perpetual refuges for all marine species. We are working to back up our local work with effective national MPA strategies and to secure legislation that will put an end to the damaging activities that have terrorised Cape Verde’s sharks for too long.