NASSAU, Bahamas - The Bahamas banned commercial fishing of sharks Tuesday, awarding protection to the more than 40 species circling the island chain that touts itself as the shark diving capital of the world.
Activists cheered the new law, having demanded more protection for sharks after a local seafood company announced last year that it planned to export shark meat and fins to Hong Kong.
The ban applies to an estimated 243,000 square miles (630,000 square kilometers) of water surrounding the archipelago, which has one of the most diverse and thriving shark populations in the world, thanks to a 20-year-old ban on longline fishing.
But commercial fishermen were still allowed to catch sharks through other, less common, means.
"There were no specific laws in the Bahamas for sharks, the crown jewels of ocean health," said Eric Carey, executive director of The Bahamas National Trust. "The new regulations ... ensure that sharks can continue to thrive for generations in our waters."
The government also increased shark-fishing fines from $3,000 to $5,000.
Blacktip, spinner and brown sharks are among the most common species in the Bahamas, with divers and other tourists contributing $78 million a year to the local economy. One reef shark is estimated to be worth $250,000 for the local economy, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Environment Group.
The new law also bans the sale, export and import of shark meat.
"We applaud the people and government of The Bahamas for being bold leaders in marine conservation," said Jill Hepp, Pew's global shark conservation manager.
Sharks are often targeted to satisfy demand for shark fin soup in Asia, where it is considered a delicacy. The practice has led to an estimated killing of 73 million sharks worldwide a year, according to Pew.
Deputy Prime Minister Brent Symonette said he did not think the ban would affect relations with China, which has invested heavily in the Bahamas in recent years and expects to soon send more than 8,000 Chinese workers to the island to build a mega resort.
Symonette said the influx of workers likely will not drive up demand for shark fin soup because it is expensive.
"There may be a market," he said. "But the overriding concern of the environment is far greater."
The Bahamas joins Palau, the Maldives and Honduras in issuing the ban, which was approved by Agriculture Minister Larry Cartwright in the capital of Nassau.
"This is in keeping with the government's commitment to pursue conservation policies and strategies in order to safeguard the marine and terrestrial environment," he said.
Jacques Cousteau's youngest son, Pierre-Yves Cousteau, visited the Bahamas earlier this year to support the campaign and praised the new legislation.
"This is fantastic news!" he said in an email. "This shows once again the Bahamas' outstanding vision for a sustainable future."
The Bahamas also is known for its shark lore. The main island, New Providence, is home to Jaws Beach, where one of the "Jaws" movies was filmed. The remains of a boater who disappeared from that beach last year were later found in the belly of a tiger shark.