Save our sharks

Bake and shark is an essential Trinidadian delicacy, but the appetites of seafood lovers take a heavy toll on marine ecosystems. Nazma Muller investigates. Plus a handy guide to sustainable Caribbean seafood

Sharks and other large predatory fish are vital to the marine ecosystem. Photograph by frantisekhojdysz/shutterstock.com

Sharks are a hard sell to most humans — unless they’re deep-fried and smothered in pineapple, chadon beni, tamarind, and garlic sauce, of course. Then the most feared animal in the ocean becomes the most delicious, Trini style. For decades, “bake and shark” has been the highlight of a trip to Maracas Bay on the north coast of Trinidad. This unique fish sandwich reached such a state of popularity, the Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern (of Bizarre Foods) just had to try it.

Unfortunately, sharks have not taken this culinary fad very well. All this mindless wolfing down of fried shark is contributing to an environmental disaster of huge proportions, with global repercussions. Worldwide, an estimated 273 million sharks are killed annually, with about a hundred million harvested just for their fins. In addition to over-fishing its shark population, including juveniles, Trinidad has also made a (very bad) name for itself as the sixth-largest exporter of shark fins to Hong Kong, where shark fin soup is eaten as a sign of status and wealth. Trinidad and Tobago’s waters are not teeming with sharks: the exports attributed to the islands are actually caught in the Atlantic Ocean by longliners that originate in the Far East, but use Trinidad’s ports as a base from which to ship the fins.

As sharks, barracuda, and other large predatory fish disappear from Caribbean coral reefs, the region’s marine food web, including its reefs and fisheries, are feeling the effects. According to a study by the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory, the decline of large predators, which has been happening for decades, is on a much greater scale than previously thought. Chris Stallings, a postdoctoral associate at FSU, examined twenty species of predators from twenty-two Caribbean countries, including sharks, groupers, snappers, jacks, trumpetfish, and barracuda. He found that nations with higher populations tend to have reefs with far fewer large fish, because as the number of people increases, so does demand for seafood. “Fishermen typically go after the biggest fish first, but shift to smaller species once the bigger ones become depleted,” explains Stallings. “In some areas with large human populations, my study revealed that only a few small predatory fish remain.”

Although several factors — including loss of coral reef habitats — contributed to the patterns observed, data suggests that over-fishing is the most likely reason for the disappearance of large predatory fishes across the region. The Nassau grouper, for example, which was once quite abundant, has become endangered.

Big fish are vitally important to marine food webs, because they regulate the population of their prey, removing sick and old fish especially. “When sharks are removed from the reefs, it creates a chain reaction,” explains Trinidadian Marc de Verteuil, environmental activist and founder of Papa Bois Conservation, which launched a shark conservation campaign last March. “The smaller predator fish they feed on, like snappers, become more abundant, which results in a decrease of herbivorous fish, the grazers that keep reefs healthy by eating algae that would otherwise overwhelm and kill coral. To protect our reefs,” de Verteuil says, “we must protect sharks.”

When a coral reef loses species like angelfish and parrotfish, which feed on sponges, the sponges can then grow uncontrollably and smother the reef. Research released in February revealed that the removal of big fish predators has altered sponge communities across the Caribbean. Biologists Joseph Pawlik and Tse-Lynn Loh of the University of North Carolina in Wilmington studied 109 species of sponges at sixty-nine Caribbean sites. They found that the ten most common species made up fifty-one per cent of the sponge cover on the reefs. “Sponges are now the main habitat-forming organisms on Caribbean coral reefs,” says Pawlik.

Reefs in the Cayman Islands and Bonaire, which are off-limits to fishing, were found to have slow-growing sponges whose chemicals taste bad to predatory fish. Fish numbers are higher near these reefs. Predatory fish there feast on fast-growing, “chemically undefended” sponges, leaving behind only bad-tasting, slow-growing sponges. On the other hand, over-fished reefs, such as those off Jamaica and Martinique, are dominated by fast-growing, better-tasting sponges. Without enough fish to eat them, the sponges quickly take over.

Add to this the devastating effects of climate change, habitat destruction, and pollution, and you can see why the Caribbean’s reefs are dying. The death knell, though, may come from the dreaded Indo-Pacific lionfish. This invasive super-predator was introduced to the Atlantic and the Caribbean by private collectors. With no known natural predators, and capable of spawning up to ten thousand eggs at a time, the lionfish has rapidly colonised the reefs and coastal waters of the Caribbean and is now a huge threat to reef health. Unchecked, lionfish are capable of devouring up to ninety per cent of juvenile native reef fish. The only way to control them is to cull them. And since they taste pretty good — once the spines are removed — eating lionfish instead of shark is a great way to both protect our reefs and give sharks a break, says de Verteuil.

“The flesh is of a very high quality, and it’s been compared to grouper or snapper,” he enthuses. So as part of its education campaign, Papa Bois Conservation put lionfish to the test at Maracas Beach one day. The group brought lionfish caught in Tobago to Richard’s Bake & Shark stall, the most popular on the beach. Filets were cooked the same way shark is prepared — marinated in green seasoning, breaded, and deep fried — then all the frills and dressings added, and a taste test done. The response was overwhelmingly positive: Richard’s sister said she couldn’t tell the difference between lionfish and shark, and would consider putting it on the menu, while a visitor from New York said it tasted better than shark.

“Lionfish may be the one fish of which the more you eat, the better it is for the environment,” says de Verteuil. “Bake and shark is a tradition, but when traditions become unsustainable, they must change. Eating bake and shark should be compared to eating bake and turtle, or bake and whale.” It may sound hard for the average Trinidadian to swallow — but giving up ever-popular fried shark may be the only way to make sure our fisheries survive in the long term.

 

Should I be eating this seafood?

We all know that fish is an excellent source of lean protein, and some species provide us with a healthy dose of fish oils and vitamins. That’s why we’ve been eating seafood for aeons. But times have changed, and so have the oceans. The sad reality today is that not all our seafood choices are harmless.

Many species are in trouble due to over-fishing, and are now endangered globally. Plus, many commercial fishing methods are destructive to marine habitats. For instance, shrimp trawling is one of the most damaging and wasteful fishing methods ever invented. As a result, trawler-caught shrimp isn’t a wise choice for any ocean-lover.

Further, there’s your health to consider: many large-bodied fish like shark, tuna, marlin, and swordfish can contain harmful contaminants such as mercury. In case you didn’t already know, if it accumulates in large enough quantities, mercury can negatively affect brain development and the nervous system.

So the next time you’re dining at your favourite restaurant, think twice before ordering that mouth-watering basket of succulent shrimp, or that delicious bake and shark. Your thought process should go something like this: 1. Is it okay to eat this? 2. Is the method used to catch this okay for the environment?

Robin Ramdeen and Amy Deacon
Papa Bois Conservation

 

YES

Lionfish
As an invasive species, lionfish is the ultimate sustainable choice — and tasty too. It is typically harvested by spearfishing, so has no bycatch problem.

Flying fish
Fast-growing, short-lived, fast-reproducing, and tasty, these fish are fairly resilient to fishing pressure.

Dolphin/mahi mahi
Not to be confused with the mammal! This fish is fairly resistant to fishing pressure, due to early maturity and prolific spawning.

Squid/calamari
Relatively resilient to fishing pressure, as they grow fast and reproduce at a young age.

Carite
Matures fairly quickly and produces high numbers of offspring, making it resilient to fishing pressure.

Tilapia
Not strictly “seafood,” as they’re farmed in freshwater ponds. However, this means it has zero impact on the marine environment.

Wahoo
Grows and reproduces quickly.

 

THINK TWICE

Lobster
Although naturally resilient to fishing pressure, they are overexploited in many parts of the Caribbean. Experts recommend a minimum length of 9 cm (from between eyes to beginning of tail).

Tuna*
Pelagic longliners overfish tuna, despite local methods tending to be more sustainable. Ask how it was caught before ordering — trolled hook and line is best.

Conch
Slow-moving and easy to harvest, but there are now international concerns about declines in numbers of wild conch. However, farmed conch is available on some islands — ask first.

Kingfish*
Seem to be relatively resilient to fishing. However, stock assessments are scarce, so the status of the population is unknown.

Cro cro/Atlantic croaker
Populations thought to be healthy, but ask about fishing methods before selecting; seine-caught is a much better choice than trawler or gillnet-caught fish.

Jack
Check if caught by handline before ordering — if not, it was likely caught using coral-damaging fishing methods.

 

NO

Shark*
Most have a long generation time, mature late, and have few offspring. This makes them very vulnerable to overfishing.

Shrimp
Shrimp tend to be caught by trawling, which means high levels of bycatch as well as causing damage to the marine environment.

Swordfish*
Data deficient in South Atlantic. Usually fished using longline methods which have high levels of bycatch (including sharks and turtles).

Snapper
These reef-fish are susceptible to fishing pressure, and tend to be over-exploited.

Marlin*
Often caught as bycatch in longline fisheries, and considered to be a threatened species.

Parrotfish
These have been severely overfished in the Caribbean, putting the health of coral reef ecosystems in jeopardy.

Grouper
A popular fish that is susceptible to overfishing.

 

*High mercury content  (pregnant women and children in particular should avoid these fish)