The grey reef shark is native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In the Indian Ocean, it occurs from South Africa to India, including Madagascar and nearby islands, the Red Sea, and the Maldives. In the Pacific Ocean, it is found from southern China to northern Australia and New Zealand, including the Gulf of Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia. This species has also been reported from numerous Pacific islands, including American Samoa, the Chagos Archipelago, Easter Island, Christmas Island, the Cook Islands, the Marquesas Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, Guam, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, New Caledonia, the Marianas Islands, Palau, the Pitcairn Islands, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, the Hawaiian Islands and Vanuatu.
They are also found in mangrove areas, moving in and out with the tide and even in fresh water near the sea. They occur singly or in small groups. Adults often aggregate in reef channels at low tide. This is one of the three most common reef sharks in the Indo-Pacific, the two others are the grey reef shark, Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos and whitetip reef shark, Triaenodon obesus.
A heavy-bodied shark with a "typical" streamlined shape, the Caribbean reef shark is difficult to distinguish from other large requiem shark species. It usually measures 2–2.5 m (6.6–8.2 ft) long; the maximum recorded length is 3 m (9.8 ft) and the maximum reported weight is 70 kg (150 lb). The coloration is dark gray or gray-brown above and white or white-yellow below, with an inconspicuous white band on the flanks. The fins are not prominently marked, and the undersides of the paired fins, the anal fin, and the lower lobe of the caudal fin are dusky.
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This species is taken by commercial and artisanal longline and gillnet fisheries throughout its range. It is valued for meat, leather, liver oil and fishmeal. The Caribbean reef shark is the most common shark landed in Colombia (accounting for 39% of the longline catch by occurrence), where it is utilized for its fins, oil and jaws (sold for ornamental purposes). In Belize, this species is mainly caught as bycatch on hook-and-line intended for groupers and snappers; the fins are sold to the lucrative Asian market and the meat sold in Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala to make "panades", a tortilla-like confection. A dedicated shark fishery operated in Belize from the mid-1900s to the early 1990s, until catches of all species saw dramatic declines. The flesh of this species may contain high levels of methylmercury and other heavy metals.
Based on morphological similarities, Jack Garrick in 1982 grouped this species with the bignose shark (C. altimus) and the sandbar shark (C. plumbeus), while Leonard Compagno in 1988 placed it as the sister species of the grey reef shark (C. amblyrhynchos). A phylogenetic analysis based on allozyme data, published by Gavin Naylor in 1992, indicated that the Caribbean reef shark is the sister taxon to a clade formed by the Galapagos shark (C. galapagensis), dusky shark (C. obscurus), oceanic whitetip shark (C. longimanus), and the blue shark (Prionace glauca). However, more work is required to fully resolve the interrelationships within Carcharhinus.
This sturdy shark is abundant in the Caribbean, and because of its average features, is often confused with other requiem sharks. Usually growing 6.5 to 10 feet long, these are the apex predator of their food web. They have been found ‘sleeping’ in caves and on the ocean floor, behavior that is still unexplained. There has been concern over eating these sharks because of the build-up of toxins in their flesh, but now they are valued for tourism more than food, which brings its own safety issues.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has assessed the Caribbean reef shark as Near Threatened; its population has declined off Belize and Cuba from overfishing and exploitation continues in other regions. They are also threatened by the degradation and destruction of their coral reef habitat. Commercial fishing for this species is prohibited in United States waters. They are protected in the Bahamas due to their significance to ecotourism, as well as in a number of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) off Brazil and elsewhere. However, enforcement against illegal fishing is lacking in some of these reserves, and many areas in which this species is abundant are not protected.
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The Caribbean reef shark occurs throughout the tropical western Atlantic Ocean, from North Carolina in the north to Brazil in the south, including Bermuda, the northern Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea. However, it is extremely rare north of the Florida Keys. It prefers shallow waters on or around coral reefs, and is commonly found near the drop-offs at the reefs' outer edges. This shark is most common in water shallower than 30 m (98 ft), but has been known to dive to 378 m (1,240 ft).
Corals, including some major extinct groups Rugosa and Tabulata, have been important reef builders through much of the Phanerozoic since the Ordovician Period. However, other organism groups, such as calcifying algae, especially members of the red algae Rhodophyta, and molluscs (especially the rudist bivalves during the Cretaceous Period) have created massive structures at various times. During the Cambrian Period, the conical or tubular skeletons of Archaeocyatha, an extinct group of uncertain affinities (possibly sponges), built reefs. Other groups, such as the Bryozoa have been important interstitial organisms, living between the framework builders. The corals which build reefs today, the Scleractinia, arose after the Permian–Triassic extinction event that wiped out the earlier rugose corals (as well as many other groups), and became increasingly important reef builders throughout the Mesozoic Era. They may have arisen from a rugose coral ancestor. Rugose corals built their skeletons of calcite and have a different symmetry from that of the scleractinian corals, whose skeletons are aragonite. However, there are some unusual examples of well-preserved aragonitic rugose corals in the late Permian. In addition, calcite has been reported in the initial post-larval calcification in a few scleractinian corals. Nevertheless, scleractinian corals (which arose in the middle Triassic) may have arisen from a non-calcifying ancestor independent of the rugosan corals (which disappeared in the late Permian).