The British Virgin Islands has declared its territorial waters a sanctuary for all shark species to help protect the marine predators whose global numbers have been dramatically dwindling.
Kedrick Pickering, minister for natural resources, said the loss of sharks disrupts the predator-prey balance, compromising the health of oceans and reefs and the survival of other marine creatures. "The best way to manage their populations is to let them fulfil their ecological role as apex predators," Pickering said.
The Cabinet of the British Caribbean archipelago of roughly 60 small islands, cays and islets on Thursday banned commercial fishing of all shark species in the 80,117 sq km of its exclusive economic zone.
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. Experts say about 100 million sharks are killed each year in commercial fisheries around the globe.
The British Virgin islands said it is also protecting rays, whose numbers have fallen sharply.
The sanctuary announcement was applauded by the territory's most famous resident, British tycoon Richard Branson.
He said: "The British Virgin Islands has shown leadership here and I urge other countries and territories in the region to follow suit to create a Caribbean-wide sanctuary to protect these magnificent animals."