Saturday, April 16, 2011

Tiger Sharks Killed for Eating Leatherback Turtles

tiger shark eating leatherback turtle

This photo depicts the head of an adult leatherback turtle that had just been found in the stomach of a tiger shark. The photo was taken last week at a dock near Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands.

Sandy Point is one of the few places on the planet where leatherback turtles, a species listed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, are known to lay their eggs.  Year after year adult leatherbacks return to the same stretch of beach to lay a clutch of eggs, their only hope of producing the next generation of turtles. Tiger sharks, a near threatened species, have fed off the annual aggregate of turtles for millions of years.

Tiger sharks are apex predators and sit at the top of the food chain. Their natural diet includes many large animals, including Hawaiian monk seals, several species of albatross, and sea turtles.

virgin islands tiger shark

This time of year, the leatherbacks at Sandy Point start coming ashore, and there were reports of as many as seven 4-meter long tiger sharks patrolling the area. The contents of this shark's stomach clearly substantiate those stories.

The person who sent me these photos said that the killing of this shark was not instigated by the local government or the national wildlife refuge; local fishermen just wanted to do something to protect the turtles.

giant tiger shark

It is easy to understand the want to protect the turtles, they are critically endangered and their existence probably provides some tourism dollars to the St. Croix economy.  However, to put it simply, sharks eat turtles. Sea turtles evolved about 250 million years ago and have most likely been a part of sharks' diet ever since.

Sharks are not to blame for driving sea turtles towards extinction.  In the last few decades turtle nesting habitat has been destroyed to make way for hotels and condos, and turtles have been killed by the thousands (millions?) for their meat and as bycatch. Their nests are also raided for their eggs, destroying their ability to reproduce and create the next generation of turtles.

Killing sharks to protect turtles is misguided.  While the turtles are critically endangered, they are still food for tiger sharks, whose populations are near threatened with extinction themselves.

Sharks have eaten sea turtles for 250 million years. Nothing we do will change the fact that sharks eat turtles. Just as sure as the turtles return to the same beach year after year to lay eggs, the sharks return year after year to feed.

Humans likely kill more leatherbacks and other sea turtles each year than sharks do, that is why they are endangered in the first place. What is needed is better management of humans, not better management of sharks.

Killing sharks is not the answer to bring leatherbacks back from the brink of extinction.

The real threat is people.

The full set of photos are posted to the Shark Defenders Facebook Page.

Update: The Virgin Islands Daily News published a story a few hours after we published our blog. The story in the paper is pretty much the same as the story we got from our source, but also raised concerns about the perceived dangers of sharks.


Anonymous said...

This is so like the fishermen, instead of cleaning up the problems on their end, they place the blame on natural predators. Great job on posting the real reason for the leatherback population decline.

Annette Olsen said...

I live in the Virgin Islnds and it is HIGHLY unlikely that this shark was killed by fishermen in order to save the turtles as there is an ongoing battle to save the turtles who are traditionally eaten as meat and their eggs too! That is why there is a protected turtle habitat. Check your source.

Shark Defenders said...

Hi Annette,

Thanks for the comment, but the newspaper reported the same thing:

ST. CROIX - Frederiksted's fish market was consumed in a shark-fed frenzy after a group of tiger sharks consumed a number of sea turtles in their own feeding frenzy earlier this week, according to reports.

After spotting a group of six tiger sharks thrashing about hundreds of feet off shore, tearing apart sea turtles, a local fisherman hooked a 10-foot tiger shark - reportedly the smallest of the group - and dragged it to shore, according to the story Nate Olive heard not long after the feeding frenzy took place.

Read more:

Meg-Ah said...

Good Day Shark Defender, I Remember the day when this shark was caught and killed. I can assure you that the fisherman who killed the shark in the photos were not out there protecting the sea turtles. He was out there to catch both, shark and/or turtle. Whatever got on his line or gaff first. Our waters here in St. Croix are over fished and illegally fished; due to corrupt government, lack of education, straight up not giving a sh*t, and nobody to really enforce the laws that are in place. I think what Annette was trying to say is that no credit should be given to the fishermen at all. These majority of the fisherman are in it for only themselves and prey on the lack of regulation. The Tiger shark in these photos are one of many and more to come; along with the sea turtles. It is important to pressure the island Governments to allocate the proper funding to provide the manpower and education to protect all of the creatures around the reef and the reef itself. When I say Island Governments, I mean all islands of the Caribbean, With the USVI leading by example.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

i think its a shame

Anonymous said...

leave the tigers alone, fisherman are the greediest b*st*rds there are, they weren't saving any turtles, they used the fins of that tiger for soup. oriental c*ck s*ckers eating fins soup cuz they think it'll make their Lil prick hard and big. do some research you a##holes

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