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.
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Despite sharks being portrayed as notorious aggressive animals, very few incidents have involved blacktip reef sharks, none being fatal. Still the importance of an apex predator is vital to a balanced and healthy ecosystem. Unfortunately, this species is very susceptible to reef gill netting. And sharks all around continue to be threatened by fishing pressure resulting in a decrease in many shark populations.
Measuring up to 3 m (9.8 ft) long, the Caribbean reef shark is one of the largest apex predators in the reef ecosystem, feeding on a variety of fishes and cephalopods. They have been documented resting motionless on the sea bottom or inside caves, unusual behavior for an active-swimming shark. If threatened, it may perform a threat display in which it frequently changes direction and dips its pectoral fins. Like other requiem sharks, it is viviparous with females giving birth to 4–6 young every other year. Caribbean reef sharks are of some importance to fisheries as a source of meat, leather, liver oil, and fishmeal, but recently they have become more valuable as an ecotourist attraction. In the Bahamas and elsewhere, bait is used to attract them to groups of divers in controversial "shark feedings". This species is responsible for a small number of attacks on humans. The shark attacks usually happen in spring and summer.
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).
Juvenile Caribbean reef sharks are preyed upon by larger sharks such as the tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) and the bull shark (C. leucas). Few parasites are known for this species; one is a dark variegated leech often seen trailing from its first dorsal fin. Off northern Brazil, juveniles seek out cleaning stations occupied by yellownose gobies (Elacatinus randalli), which clean the sharks of parasites while they lie still on the bottom. Horse-eye jacks (Caranx latus) and bar jacks (Carangoides ruber) routinely school around Caribbean reef sharks.
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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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.
Along with the blacktip reef shark (C. melanopterus) and the whitetip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus), the grey reef shark is one of the three most common sharks inhabiting Indo-Pacific reefs. They actively expel most other shark species from favored habitats, even species larger in size. In areas where this species co-exists with the blacktip reef shark, the latter species occupies the shallow flats, while the former stays in deeper water. Areas with a high abundance of grey reef sharks tend to contain few sandbar sharks (C. plumbeus), and vice versa; this may be due to their similar diets causing competitive exclusion.
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.
One useful definition distinguishes reefs from mounds as follows: Both are considered to be varieties of organosedimentary buildups – sedimentary features, built by the interaction of organisms and their environment, that have synoptic relief and whose biotic composition differs from that found on and beneath the surrounding sea floor. Reefs are held up by a macroscopic skeletal framework. Coral reefs are an excellent example of this kind. Corals and calcareous algae grow on top of one another and form a three-dimensional framework that is modified in various ways by other organisms and inorganic processes. By contrast, mounds lack a macroscopic skeletal framework (see stromatolite). Mounds are built by microorganisms or by organisms that don't grow a skeletal framework. A microbial mound might be built exclusively or primarily by cyanobacteria. Excellent examples of biostromes formed by cyanobacteria occur in the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and in Shark Bay on the coast of Western Australia.