KINGSTON, Jamaica – The British Virgin Islands declared its territorial waters a sanctuary for all shark species Thursday to help protect the marine predators whose global numbers have been dramatically dwindling.
Kedrick Pickering, deputy premier and minister for natural resources, said the loss of sharks disrupts the predator-prey balance, compromising the health of oceans and reefs and the survival of other marine creatures.
"The best way to manage their populations is to let them fulfill their ecological role as apex predators," Pickering said at a conference in Belgium.
The Cabinet of the British Caribbean archipelago of roughly 60 small islands, cays and islets banned commercial fishing of all shark species in the 30,933 square miles (80,117 square kilometers) of its exclusive economic zone.
Shark fishing has grown rapidly in recent decades, driven by rising demand, mainly in China, for shark fin soup. Because of their long life spans and low fertility rates, sharks are highly vulnerable to overfishing. Experts say roughly 100 million sharks are killed each year in commercial fisheries around the globe.
It's far from clear how robustly the tourism-dependent British territory will police its waters, which are home to coral reefs where divers can spot such shark species as scalloped hammerheads, oceanic whitetips and reef sharks.
The territory of about 25,000 people said it is also protecting rays, whose numbers have sharply dwindled over the years. Researchers with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature have said roughly one-quarter of the world's sharks and rays are threatened with extinction.
The sanctuary announcement was applauded by the territory's most famous resident, British tycoon and adventurer Richard Branson.
Branson, CEO and founder of the Virgin Group of companies, has been pushing Caribbean governments to better protect marine environments, making special mention of sharks and rays. At a conference Branson hosted on his private island last year, several regional governments committed to establishing shark protections by May 2015.
"The British Virgin Islands has shown leadership here and I urge other countries and territories in the region to follow suit to create a Caribbean-wide sanctuary to protect these magnificent animals," Branson said in an email.
The territory joins Honduras and the Bahamas as the first governments in the Americas to declare shark sanctuaries, according to Pew Charitable Trusts, which has pushed shark conservation efforts around the world. The world's first shark sanctuary was created in 2009 by the Pacific nation of Palau.
The Caribbean territory is "showing that small islands can have a big impact on global biodiversity," Pew's Angelo Villagomez said.
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