Mesoamerican Reef

Protecting Sharks and Other Marine Mega-fauna in the MAR

Whale shark

Whale shark. Credit: Wolcott Henry/iLCP

Central America has banned shark finning—the practice of removing a shark’s fins and discarding the animal in the sea—but the consumption of shark and ray meat continues. In Honduras, shark fishing is banned throughout most of the country, and in Belize there is limited consumption of shark meat. However, demand for shark fillet across the MAR, notably in Guatemala, and the high price of shark fins in the Asian market, have led fishermen to target sharks both legally and illegally. The use of unsustainable fishing gear such as nets and long lines worsen the situation.

Dr. Rachel Graham, founder and Executive Director of MarAlliance, is a researcher and conservation scientist who studies sharks, rays, and other large marine species in the MAR. Based in Belize, Graham and the MarAlliance team use applied research, conservation and management, and education to help protect these vulnerable “big fish.” Her previous work in the region indicates that the number of sharks in Belize has declined dramatically over the past three decades. Alarmingly, not one out of 150 fishermen interviewed about sawfish (a species of ray) had seen one in over 15 years. As most sharks are caught with gill nets and long lines, MarAlliance supports a ban of these methods in Belizean waters.

Because sharks and their lesser-known cousins the rays live long lives, mature late, and produce relatively few young, they are especially vulnerable to overfishing. On a global scale, a quarter of the estimated 1,044 species of sharks and rays assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature are at threat of extinction, which has severe implications for entire ecosystems. As apex predators, sharks help to maintain the health of fish populations and the structure of marine ecosystems. As larger sharks grow scarce, their prey fish may become more abundant. Since many of those species are also predators, their prey become scarce as a result.

Rachel Graham, in blue, prepares a Caribbean reef shark for measuring at Lighthouse Reef Atoll in Belize

Rachel Graham, in blue, prepares a Caribbean reef shark for measuring at Lighthouse Reef Atoll in Belize. Credit: Pete Oxford

Though they represent a small fraction of fishing income throughout the MAR, sharks and rays and other large marine wildlife constitute a major attraction for the expanding dive tourism industry. After documenting the value of whale sharks as tourist attractions in the MAR, Graham helped persuade the government of Belize to protect the species. While nurse sharks have joined the list of protected species in Belize, their poaching continues. MarAlliance recently conducted diver and dive shop surveys that suggested the value of sharks as a tourism attraction is significantly higher than the value of their meat and fins caught in the country. Since most of the sharks taken from Belize are caught by non-Belizeans and sold outside of the country, local people don’t benefit—indicating that broader protections could help both marine life and the economies of Belizeans.

Despite the mounting evidence and public support for such bans, the government of Belize has bowed to the opposition raised by a fraction of fishers against net bans. MarAlliance has taken the case directly to the public. The Belize Shark Project was created to study sharks and raise awareness of their endangered status. With the support of the Summit Foundation, Graham has organized field trips for the children of fishers to encounter sharks and rays in the wild and co-produced educational materials, including two award-winning videos, “Where Have Our Sharks Gone?” and “Kids Meet Sharks.” Part of the outreach is alerting the public to the health risks of consuming shark meat. Because they are long-lived apex predators, sharks tend to accumulate mercury in their flesh; 87% percent of shark meat samples that she and her colleagues collected and tested contained significant levels of methyl mercury. The Kids Meet Sharks Program has since expanded throughout Belize and Honduras, with more than 3,000 school-aged children engaged through the flagship education program, creating a new generation of marine ambassadors. The outreach is paying off: the public and media recently showed strong, vocal support for sharks, a first for Belize, following an unsustainable one-off take of sharks at Lighthouse Reef Atoll.

Schoolchildren learn about shark anatomy in Roatán, Honduras. Credit: Gaby Ochoa

Leading a team of biologists and fishers, Graham is training traditional fishers and local students in scientifically robust shark and ray monitoring techniques that could help diversify fisher incomes. Robust monitoring methods remain the backbone of the science-driven conservation efforts, while focused outreach and education programs relay the research directly to the communities. MarAlliance continues to value the knowledge of traditional fishers, and fosters knowledge exchange among fishers, scientists, stakeholders, and students. Most recently, fishers from Belize, Mexico, and Honduras participated in fisher exchanges, in which traditional fishers traveled outside of their own country to conduct scientific monitoring of marine mega-fauna. As MarAlliance expands into other countries, research is also addressing knowledge gaps from the deep waters. Recent fisher surveys indicate that deep-water fisheries are expanding, driven by demand for fish fillet and shark meat. MarAlliance is monitoring deep-water fishes and sharks to develop a baseline for this previously unstudied ecosystem.

MarAlliance is forging key alliances to amplify the voices for sharks and other marine mega-fauna. MarAlliance partners with the Houston Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Network to leverage its mission to explore and enable positive changes for threatened marine wildlife, their critical habitats, and the human communities that depend on them.

Graham hopes that enhanced international attention and concern will encourage more visitors to engage in large marine wildlife observation in the wild, thus increasing community incomes through marine wildlife tourism. Benefitted communities, in turn, will become steady conservation allies for the long term and make current conservation efforts permanent. “My goal is to persuade the world that a shark is worth very much more alive than dead,” said Graham.

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