The British Virgin Islands declared its territorial waters a sanctuary for all shark species today to help protect the marine predators whose global numbers have been dramatically dwindling. Specifically, the archipelago of roughly 60 small islands, cays, and islets banned commercial fishing of all shark species in the 30,933 square miles of its exclusive economic zone. "The best way to manage their populations is to let them fulfill their ecological role as apex predators," says the islands' chief of natural resources.
Shark fishing has grown rapidly in recent decades, driven by rising demand, mainly in China, for shark fin soup. Because of their long life spans and low fertility rates, sharks are highly vulnerable to overfishing, and an estimated 100 million are killed each year in commercial fisheries around the globe. It's unclear how robustly the tourism-dependent British territory will police its waters, which are home to coral reefs where divers can spot such shark species as scalloped hammerheads, oceanic whitetips, and reef sharks. (Click to read about how Australia is taking an opposite approach to sharks off the coast.)