Sint Maarten recently designated its entire exclusive economic zone a marine protected area and shark sanctuary. Dr Anjani Ganase meets Tadzio Bervoets, director of the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation and advocate for sharks in the Caribbean.

My first meeting with Tadzio Bervoets was under unusual circumstances. Shortly before we were to meet, I got this request: “Do you have access to a small airtight container and some rubbing alcohol?” Before I could ask why, Facebook exploded. Tadzio, director of the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation, was attending a conference at a hotel in Trinidad to present on marine ecosystem resilience. But he found out that he was being served bake and shark. Passionate about shark conservation and research, he had to speak out, he had to do something. It turned out I was aiding and abetting the smuggling of the tiniest piece of cooked shark meat out of Trinidad for genetics testing to determine the species of shark being served. 

Tadzio grew up on Sint Maarten, a tiny island shared by the Dutch and the French. He had the typical seaside upbringing. 

“I fell in love with nature, animals and the sea from a very early age, snorkeling since I could float and being a nerd about the Ocean. I grew up sailing and snorkeling and became certified on my 13th birthday. After that I worked in the dive industry from cleaning the hulls of dive boats to become an instructor in my early twenties. I found myself running a diveshop at 24 but left to further my education."

Observing sharks from above Photo Credit: Nature Foundation Sint Maarten

By the time Tadzio left the island in 2001, he had already observed Sint Maarten’s reefs and marine life over ten years. He pursued an undergraduate degree in International Studies and NGO management with a minor in English Literature at the University of South Florida. He came back to work in his dive shop, but left again for his Masters in Environmental Resource Management and Ecology at the Vrije University in Amsterdam. In 2010, he returned to Sint Maarten to become the director of the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation, an NGO focused on ecosystem and species management on the island. Day to day activities included various projects from water quality monitoring, education and outreach, coral restoration, shark and marine mammal conservation, ecosystem monitoring, sea turtle conservation and mangrove area management. 

“The biggest highlight over the past couple of years, has been the establishment of protected areas, the Sint Maarten Man of War Shoal MPA in 2010 and the Mullet Pond Ramsar Site in 2016. In 2016, we also established the territorial waters and the ecological exclusion zones (EEZ: ~ 30 km2) of Sint Maarten as a shark sanctuary.”

He has also worked with the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance, an umbrella organization that supports conservation activities of protected area management organizations in the Dutch Caribbean (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten). Through this partnership he worked to establish - and had the honour of naming - the Yarari (which means “a fine place” in Taino) Marine Mammal and Shark Sanctuary, which covers the EEZ of Bonaire and Saba. 

After learning about the dramatic declines to shark population around St Maarten because of fishing, Tadzio saw the urgent need to change this, through marine management and protection but also through education and outreach about the importance of sharks. So a shark conservation programme - Save Our Sharks (SOS) project was set up.

“The project has three components  - education and outreach, and policy with science guiding the previous two components. Regarding science we've been doing diver observations with dive operators, baited remote underwater video surveys, acoustic monitoring (both used to establish distribution and site fidelity) and tagging… In 2016 we organized a ship-based expedition which I had the honor of leading around St. Maarten, Saba and St. Eustatius where we tagged numerous species of sharks.”

The economic exclusion zone of Sint Maarten was declared a shark sanctuary as part of the Save Our Shark (SOS) project. Photo credit Nature Foundation Sint Maarten, Save Our Sharks.

The outcomes of the research?

“The highlight of course were the five large 12-foot Tiger sharks which we tagged with satellite transmitters during the expedition, two of which travelled down the Caribbean Chain. We also noticed that there is a north south migration of the animals tagged in our region compared to a south north migration of sharks tagged in the Virgin Islands. Our tagged females hang around Aves Island and then travel back north. So interesting data that we are currently crunching!”

Female Tiger shark being tagged on Saba Bank for the Save Our Sharks Project. This Tiger eventually made her way down to Trinidad and Tobago. Photo credit Nature Foundation Sint Maarten, Save Our Sharks.

They tag mostly juvenile sharks around St. Maarten, but larger females occurred on Saba Bank (~40 km south of St. Maarten). One such tagged female Tiger shark made its way south from Saba Bank, which is protected, to the unprotected shores of Trinidad and Tobago. It is important to understand the migratory patterns of these animals and therefore the risks these sharks face as they move across national jurisdictions. The implications are very important with regard to local and regional conservation efforts. Hence, the push for regional and global protection of sharks. The preliminary findings of the SOS project have already led to the regional protection status of four species of sharks (Oceanic White Tip and three species of hammerhead sharks), two species of manta rays and the small-tooth sawfish under the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife Protocol of the Cartagena Convention in the wider Caribbean.

His view on shark consumption in Trinidad and Tobago:

“Sharks are apex predators and as such they maintain the equilibrium necessary to support healthy oceans and fisheries. If not properly managed, there will be negative affects on the ocean ecosystem culminating in ecosystem and fisheries collapse. Sharks also have very high levels of mercury which can have negative health effects if consumed. Sharks alive are good for the economy, especially for Tobago with its dive tourism. Years ago Tobago was a hotspot for Mantas, which attracted a significant amount of dive tourists but these have since disappeared, which is quite unfortunate. On Sint Maarten we measured the market value for a dead shark, which is about 170 USD, while a live shark brings in about 750,000 USD. Divers want to see sharks, and will pay to see them. There has to be more attention to the conservation and management of sharks and shark products in Trinidad, for both local conservation but also for shark conservation in the region.”

Tadzio hanging out with a Hammerhead Photo credit Nature Foundation Sint Maarten, Save Our Sharks.

As in all NGOs, there are constant funding needs and financial constraints. The bigger challenges are to close the gap in knowledge about the need to care for our environment, and to reverse the stigma of sharks. The most recent adversity was the result of hurricane Irma, which devastated Sint Maarten above and below the water. The majority of the coral reefs – including many of the branching reef building corals – were destroyed along with all their coral restoration sites. The island, its ecosystems and communities, have begun the slow road to recovery. This is the true test of the effectiveness of ecosystem management and conservation: to foster the recovery and build the resilience of these ecosystems. With Tadzio Bervoets and the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation, the island is in safe hands. 

Tagging of Tiger Shark on Saba Bank as part of the Save Our Sharks project

Follow the tracks of the tagged Tiger shark all the way down to the coast of Tobago


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