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2013 is the International Year of the Hammerhead Shark

(DiverWire) As I write this, CITES CoP16 is underway. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is an international agreement between governments around the world. The goal is to ensure that the multi-billion dollar international trade of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. CITES offers protections for over 30,000 species across the globe. Countries voluntarily join, but once a member they are legally bound to uphold the convention.

Scientific findings released on March 1, put the estimated number of sharks killed each year in commercial fisheries at 100 million, with a range between 63 and 273 million. The 100 million figure, once accused of being, “plucked from the sky,” is now supported by reputable shark authorities and is a tragic reality for sharks. Because of their life history traits (slow growth, sexual maturity late in life and low number of offspring) these animals cannot recover from this debilitating decline in populations.

This year the 16th meeting of the Conference of Parties (countries) is happening in Bangkok, Thailand and 177 countries have the chance to protect several species of sharks and manta rays. A proposal to include scalloped hammerhead sharks in the Appendix II listing has been submitted by numerous countries including, Costa Rica, Ecuador and 27 member States of the European Union. Great and smooth hammerhead sharks are being included in this listing because their fins look very similar when traded. Oceanic white tip sharks porbeagle sharks and manta ray proposals have also been submitted.

If 2013 is the year of the great hammerhead shark then March is their month, especially on the tiny island of South Bimini in the Bahamas. For nearly a decade the Bimini Biological Field Station (Sharklab) and its staff have been developing sites to dive with and tag these amazing creatures. From January through March, the great hammerheads frequent these crystal clear waters and can be found in close proximity to the coastline. This has created an ideal research and diving venue, uninfluenced by outside factors.

This has all changed this year and the “cat is out of the bag”, so to speak with everyone and their uncle motoring to the shores of Bimini to have their moment in the world’s newest shark diving Mecca. If I weren’t already based in Bimini, I too would be heading in this direction for the chance of a lifetime to dive with these magnificent creatures, which happen to be my favorite animal on the planet!

The turquoise water of Bimini and the shallow depth, make this an ideal place for photo and video; probably the biggest draw for the masses now flocking to Bimini. The sharks cruise in from the haze and circle around the bait. These charismatic predators are cautious, but not aggressive or fearful. These sharks have comical faces, with their mouth on the underside and large cartoon like eyes. They appear to be laughing at a joke or smiling for the camera. Power and grace, with a Cheshire cat smile. No, they do not have the characteristic sleek body or head sharks are known for, but even people who do not know much about sharks can identify a hammerhead.

Sadly, the rare and elusive nature of these creatures, which has launched a global interest in photographing and filming them, is also the reason why research to better understand them is absolutely vital. For over twenty years the Sharklab has been documenting the occurrence of these sharks around the islands of Bimini and in 2003 they began tagging and collecting genetic samples. The data is deficient on this endangered species and Bimini provides an ideal location for collecting this critical data. Science catalyzes the establishment of regulations to protect animals as well as being the backbone for conservation efforts. The work the Sharklab has done with lemon sharks was integral in getting them protected in Florida waters and will hopefully continue to do the same for other species on a local and global scale.

A Marine Protected Area (http://www.facebook.com/Bimini.Marine.Protected.Area) was declared in Bimini in 2008 and has yet to be finalized. Included in this proposed area is the only mangrove habitat on Great Bahama Bank, a vital nursery area for juvenile snapper, conch, lobster and lemon sharks. This nursery area is really the life source for the island and directly and indirectly impacts the other ecosystems around the island including coral reefs and pelagic animals cruising past. Without these mangroves the wildlife that makes Bimini amazing, including the great hammerheads, will suffer drastically. It is all connected and it important to realize the sharks attracting divers, the conch a tourist visiting the island eats, the snapper a local catches to feed his family as well as the islands stability against storms all exist because of mangroves.

I feel truly blessed to have spent so much time with these magnificent animals and to call Bimini home for much of the year. I hope each and every person that slips beneath the surface around Bimini realizes how fortunate he or she is as well. As divers, photographers and videographers, we have the opportunity to play a valuable role in the survival of these animals. Each image, each video clip, each blog, each story shared with friends, is so much more than just those things; it is an opportunity to spread awareness, educate the world and help make sure future generations can know the indescribable beauty of watching a great hammerhead in the ocean; where they belong.

For more information about how you can help the sharks of Bimini:

http://www.facebook.com/BiminiBlueCoalition

http://www6.miami.edu/sharklab/

www.savebimini.org