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).
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.
This species is commonly found in shallow waters on and near coral reefs and occasionally in brackish waters. Juveniles are typically found in extremely shallow water (±15 to 100 cm) inside lagoons, often swimming along the shoreline; adults typically occur on shallow parts of the forereef, often moving over the reef crest and onto the reef flat at flood tide. Individual adults inhabit a relatively small home range of ±2.5 km2 and appear to reside close to their home reef but occasionally cross deepwater channels between adjacent reefs.
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Although there are no active reef shark fisheries in the US Pacific, the reef sharks' disappearance could be caused by recreational fishing or illegal shark finning, which, combined, kill 26 million to 73 million sharks each year. Another possible explanation is that the reef sharks are starving. Their food sources, including coral reef fishes, are decreasing in number because of habitat destruction and human exploitation, and could be taking the sharks with them.
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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.
Are there so few reef sharks because of human activities such as fishing and finning, or were there never very many to start with? To answer this question, a team of marine biologists (which did not include Friedlander) decided to count reef sharks at coral reefs close and far to human settlements to better understand how humans impact their populations.
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.
There is a variety of biotic reef types, including oyster reefs and sponge reefs, but the most massive and widely distributed are tropical coral reefs. Although corals are major contributors to the framework and bulk material comprising a coral reef; the organisms most responsible for reef growth against the constant assault from ocean waves are calcareous algae, especially, although not entirely, coralline algae.