Economic Hit in a Mexican Town - a community's sharks killed

Local newspaper article reveals the town's anger (photo: Eli Martinez)
November 12, 2010
by Samantha Whitcraft

There is a lovely town in Mexico's Yucatan called Playa del Carmen; to some people it's one of a series of fun beach spots and a great place to kick back with a beer and watch another Caribbean sunset, but to others it is the place to dive with bull sharks. Every year, around this time, beautiful bull sharks -- up to 20-25 at a time, perhaps remnant of a once bigger aggregation -- show up just off the coast. And because their appearance there is predictable, they became a strong eco-tourism draw. People who love sharks, and their numbers are growing, will pay handsomely to see these amazing animals. And for the past several years, local businesses awaited the arrival of "the bulls of Playa del Carmen" along with the economic boost it brought them and the entire town.
Divers and photographers experiencing "the bulls of Playa del Carmen"
Four days ago, however, nine of  "the bulls of Playa del Carmen", likely some of the same sharks that local dive operators, famous photographers, and even tourists had come to know and love, were killed by a local fisherman from a neighboring town. His name is Humberto Andusi from Puerto Morelos, Mexico, and by all accounts, he knew exactly what he was doing; like all experienced fishermen he knows when and where the fish are. Additionally, the location and value of the sharks to the dive industry there was no secret. Humberto sought out and killed  these sharks, seven of which where reproductive females. And if the loss of reproductive females were not enough of a blow to the current and future population in the area, Eli Martinez, editor of Shark Diver Magazine reports from his contacts in Playa del Carmen that, in fact, approximately 50 pups were pulled from the dead animals. The sex ratio of that entire generation that was wiped out is unknown -- how many future breeding females where also killed? Those pups represented the future success of the only known bull shark aggregation along Mexico's Yucatan peninsula.

The biological loss in terms of population recovery, locally, could be significant in that the estimated average number in the aggregation, based on Shark Diver Magazine's trip reports since 2009 is a maximum of 22 animals. The loss of seven females is especially problematic because bull sharks, like most large sharks, have a slow reproductive rate -- specifically, they mature at 10-15 years old and have 1-13 pups at a time. Given these back-of-the-envelope numbers and assuming a low migration rate of 'new' sharks into the area, the bull shark aggregation at Playa del Carmen may not fully recover for a decade or more. Time will tell and responsible dive operators who care about these animals and their livelihood will, hopefully, keep a close count and a watchful eye on the aggregation over the coming years.

There is a a very real human impact too. Martinez, who leads a yearly trip to dive with the sharks at Playa de Carmen, stated that "...9 bull sharks, which was the working population of sharks the dive shops were working with...and all these females were returning which means these were the same females that came to these waters each and every year. Sad, makes me so damn sad." Since the sharks were caught and killed, the local dive operators haven't seen any of the remaining animals in the area. If the sharks don't come back, Martinez estimates a significant economic hit to the town. A rough, low-ball calculation of the numbers looks like this: there are about 10 dive shops in the area of Playa del Carmen that advertise and bring in divers with the draw of their bull sharks; on average, combining all the shops, there are as many as 30 divers per day paying about $120 each for the experience...now multiple that by a 150-day season. Playa del Carmen's dive industry alone stands to lose in the area of $540,000 this year. That number does not include the loss of revenue to supporting industries like local restaurants, bars, and hotels that cater to the divers that come for the sharks.

By comparison, Señor Andusi probably made between $100 to $200 per shark grossing himself between $900 to $1800 for a single days' work. He likely sold the animals, whole, to a 'runner' who transported the sharks to Cancun or Mérida and doubled his money selling them to an exporter, who in turn will make his profit on the international 'market' with the most valuable parts of the sharks -- the fins, oil, and cartilage. Surprisingly, as in many countries, this series of events is completely legal in Mexico.
The "bulls of Playa del Carmen"?  (photo: http://www.photosfan.com/sharks/)

Today, shortly after the local newspaper article came out about what had happened and who had killed Playa del Carmen's bull sharks, Señor Andusi walked into one of the leading dive shops in town, Phantom Divers, and apologized to the owner. Apparently, community pressure exerted via the local press had an initial impact. Hopefully, the same community pressure will be applied to the Mexican government's fisheries agency, National Commission of Aquaculture and Fishing (CONAPESCA) to more fully and effectively protect Mexico's valuable sharks.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? 1. Support responsible, sustainable shark eco-tourism to keep our sharks worth more alive than dead at the local level; 2. Be an informed consumer and never buy anything with shark product in it including pills, foods, clothing and cosmetics; 3. Be a vocal and active advocate for stronger shark conservation laws in your community or where you vacation; and 4. Sign and share the petition to protect the marine ecosystem of the Riviera Maya and Playa del Carmen, Mexico, addressed to the Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas y Municipio de Solidaridad. Thank you.

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  1. “By being inattentive to the needs of others, inevitably we end up harming them.” – Dalai Lama

  2. Interesting comments. After reading the whole post I can only understand the sadness of the situation. One thing is sure, is that I don't think shark feeding has anything to do with eco-tourism as its being portrayed here. It's been proven to impact the shark population more than it does it any good.
    Being the devil's advocate here, I could quote this comment above (Dalai Lama) and turn it so we see the local fihsermen looking for their share of the shark frenzie profit. Why not them? Why can't they make a buck or two on this half million dollar business?
    As long as it will be a business there will be sharks eating/killing other sharks.
    It's a hard choice we have to make. Leave profit behind and insure the longevity and prosperity of these wonderful yet endangered species or turn our back on Nature and pay the consequences.

  3. It's just time that Sharks were left be.

  4. Jason; Thank you for your insightful comments. The only peer-reviewed scientific study I have found that suggests shark feeding effects their populations negatively was actually about rays at Sting Ray City in Cayman and showed a change from nocturnal to diurnal feeding with a possible change in associated predator aggregations. If you know one specifically about sharks I would be very interested to read it. Thank you very much. - Samantha (Author of the article and marine biologist)

  5. Samantha,
    Our chief researcher (Saving Our Sharks AC) for the Bull Sharks in Playa is currently doing a long term study of shark feeding in the Bahamas and how it changes the sharks....she is based at SFU in Vancouver and I will ask her if she can provide any information about her results. We are supposed to be in Playa with Chino et al in Feb to start satellite and acoustic tagging as well as to begin our poputation study. I would be interested in chatting with you...FB as Saving Our Sharks or savingoursharks@hotmail.com
    Cheers Russ Hennessey

  6. I found a very interesting article here - http://johannmourier.wordpress.com/actual-phd-shark-research-project/impact-of-shark-feeding/ - although it does not yet say how feeding can impact shark behavior, but it depict a set of tests and studies, the group is going to carry out. So, I give it to you, maybe not yet scientifically proven but it is, at least, triggering interest to see if it does. I worked in Nassau for couple of seasons, at the most famous shark feeding dive shop in(no name!)and there was a girl there, working on her thesis or doctorate, don't really remember, who was there to study the sharks being fed and stayed to study Lionfish invasion but that's another story! I was working as dive instructor and was sometimes requested to tag along large group of divers during feeding, as a safety diver. Two different sites are used, one daily, not too far and another one, further out at sea, used 2 or 3 times a week (on high season) and let me tell you about this site. The feeder was taken for a rough ride when he was going down with the chum as the sharks were hungry for there too rare but yummies snacks. So I can easily say from having witnessed it, feeding impact sharks behavior. Not long ago, in Grd Bahama, a diver was bitten by a shark during or around a feeding session. He died. If we are not allowed to feed bears off the woods it's because they could come out (and they do!)and seek food or anything 'eatable. So why do we tolerate shark feeding? Because we know they won't come after us?
    On another note, going to study sharks with shark feeders or shark feeding friendly dive shop is a bad idea. Specially these one in Playa. Specially because of their relationship with the animal. It is not a shark anymore, it is $$$ and that tend to false the debate. You'd be better off with a dive shop that does not support feeding but takes it's clients there and observe how they come and get close/curious of the divers...with no chum!

    Let's fight for the sharks right, not our right to decide if we can feed them or not.


  7. Thank you very much for the article Samantha. I am just coming back from Mexico. Last Tuesday I was in Playa del Carmen to see the bullsharks. Unfortunately, they did not show...well, after reading your article I know why...and it makes me very upset.
    I have done this dive with my friend Luis Leal from Dos Ojos Dive Shop about 1 1/2 years ago and it was the most exciting shark dive I have done so far. He usually does not feed the sharks...and they still show up!
    Anyway, I just hope that your organization togehter with others can put some pressure on the Mexican government to impose a ban or some restriction on shark fishing.

  8. When I was in Playa, the dives we did with Bulls were not feeder dives... I don't know if things have changed....

  9. This happened to a group of nurse sharks I used to dive with every day in Islamorada, Florida. It made me become a scientist dedicated to trying to stop shark finning and the short term gains from it. This is heartbreaking and all to repetitive a scenario. Sharks are worth more alive. Period.

  10. I think only one of the dive shops here do actual feeding during the dives,most others just go with the flow and take their clients to the feeding spot without chum.
    That said, the feeding is for sure what gathered all animals in a small area making them easy targets for the fisherman. Before the feeding started two years ago, it should have been almost impossible to kill so many at one occasion. It used to be very rare seeing bull sharks, but last year every diver in town knew where they were. One could swim there from shore almost.
    The lesson to be learned, is to stop the feeding all together and avoid setting up these obvious traps.
    99% of all divers that come here would then never have this experience, but the sharks would be little bit more safe. I for one is perfectly fine with that.

  11. Can they set a precedent and sue the fisherman for destruction of livelihood?