Background: In recent decades, large pelagic and coastal shark populations have declined dramatically with increased fishing; however, the status of sharks in other systems such as coral reefs remains largely unassessed despite a long history of exploitation. Here we explore the contemporary distribution and sighting frequency of sharks on reefs in the greater-Caribbean and assess the possible role of human pressures on observed patterns.
Methodology/principal findings: We analyzed 76,340 underwater surveys carried out by trained volunteer divers between 1993 and 2008. Surveys were grouped within one km2 cells, which allowed us to determine the contemporary geographical distribution and sighting frequency of sharks. Sighting frequency was calculated as the ratio of surveys with sharks to the total number of surveys in each cell. We compared sighting frequency to the number of people in the cell vicinity and used population viability analyses to assess the effects of exploitation on population trends. Sharks, with the exception of nurse sharks occurred mainly in areas with very low human population or strong fishing regulations and marine conservation. Population viability analysis suggests that exploitation alone could explain the large-scale absence; however, this pattern is likely to be exacerbated by additional anthropogenic stressors, such as pollution and habitat degradation, that also correlate with human population.
Conclusions/significance: Human pressures in coastal zones have lead to the broad-scale absence of sharks on reefs in the greater-Caribbean. Preventing further loss of sharks requires urgent management measures to curb fishing mortality and to mitigate other anthropogenic stressors to protect sites where sharks still exist. The fact that sharks still occur in some densely populated areas where strong fishing regulations are in place indicates the possibility of success and encourages the implementation of conservation measures.