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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.
Socially, they are mostly loners unless living in a threatening ecosystem. These are the first and the only species of sharks that are known to “sleep” on the ocean floor or within reef caves. It is believed that these sharks are not actually sleeping but merely resting. These sharks have actually been given the nickname “sleeping sharks” because of their habit of lying motionless at the sea bottom. This is a somewhat unusual and unique behavior of these sharks.
Blacktip reef sharks, Carcharhinus melanopterus (Quoy and Gaimard, 1824), are small sharks measuring up to 1.8 m with short, bluntly-rounded snouts, oval eyes, and narrow-cusped teeth. They have 2 dorsal fins and no interdorsal ridges. Juveniles (< 70 cm) are yellow-brown on their dorsal (upper) sides, white on their ventral (under) sides; adults are brownish-gray and white, respectively. All their fins have conspicuous black or dark brown tips, and posterior (rear) dark edges on their pectoral fins and their upper lobe of their caudal (tail) fins. The prominent black tips of their first dorsal fin contrasts with a light band below it; a conspicuous dark band on their flanks which extends to their pelvic fins. Maximum weight: 24 kg; frequents depth ranges from the surface to 75 m.
Reef sharks play a major role in shaping Caribbean reef communities. As the top predators of the reef and indicator species for marine ecosystems, they help maintain the delicate balance of marine life in reef environments. Reef sharks are highly valued for their meat, leather, liver oil, and fishmeal, which make them prone to overfishing and targeting. Yet, their importance for the tourism industry makes them more valuable alive than dead. In 2011, Honduras declared its waters to be a permanent sanctuary for sharks, making fishing for these species completely forbidden.
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