Populations of sharks and rays worldwide are under increasing pressures from unsustainable fisheries, and dramatic declines of populations of coastal and pelagic species are being documented over relatively short time scales. Their populations are in global decline due to high targeted and indirect fishing mortality, coupled with life history characteristics of slow growth, late maturity, low fecundity, and low population recovery rates.
Sharks, rays, skates and chimeras belong to one of the oldest and most successful Classes of fishes (Condrichthyes) on the planet and have survived for more than 400 million years. Despite their resilience to natural mortality events, including several mass extinctions, the traits that long ensured their survival make them especially vulnerable to human-induced threats such as fishing mortality, pollution, and climate change.
All condrichthyans have skeletons made of cartilage, and can generally be categorized by a few common characteristics, such as slow growth rates and low reproductive output. These “K-selected” life history traits make it difficult for populations of sharks and rays to recover from sustained, targeted fishing mortality. Global demand for shark products, and especially shark fins, has lead to severe declines of shark populations throughout the world. With a few notable exceptions, sharks and rays are mid-level or apex predators, and are vital components of healthy and functional marine ecosystems. Playing key roles in structuring fish communities and fostering reef resilience, sharks and rays may be potent indicators of fishing mortality and the overall health of coral reef habitats.
Belize is home to at least 42 species of sharks and rays, and derives substantial direct economic benefit from shark- and ray-based tourism. Our research with fishers on their traditional ecological knowledge suggests that local and foreign based small-scale commercial and artisanal fisheries supplying fillet for the Lenten season and fins to the Asian markets have led to a decrease in abundance, size and diversity and even shifts in species distributions. Notably, the introduction of gillnets in the 1970s led to the local extinction of two species of sawfish that were once common throughout Belize’s coastal waters.
In Belize, sharks and rays are not only highly vulnerable to direct threats from fishing but are also impacted by indirect threats from critical habitat transformation and pollution. Analysis of samples from 11 species of sharks found in Belize revealed high levels of methyl mercury, a potent neurotoxin.
Although highly valuable alive to Belize’s coastal ecosystems, finfish health and tourism, sharks do not receive the attention and protection they require to reverse population declines and reverse distributional shifts and even local extinctions. The Belize Shark Project aims to fill these gaps through a country-wide, multi-faceted and highly collaborative approach to shark conservation that integrates science, education, outreach, training and policy-support. We work with Government, NGO and academic partners along with guides and fishers throughout the country with a focus on several marine protected areas, sites that serve as discrete management units.
In March 2013, the Convention on the International Trade in Threated Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), which overseas wildlife trade, highlighted the need to protect seven species sharks and rays from overexploitation.
From September 2014 onwards CITES will regulate the international trade of hammerheads, oceanic whitetip sharks, and manta rays by listing them on the Appendix II. These species were added to the white, whale and basking sharks that had been previously listed on Appendix II and all species of sawfish, which are listed on Appendix I (prohibition of all trade).
Despite their importance to the economy, both from tourism and consumption, little fundamental research and appreciation exists for sharks and rays in Belize. The Belize Shark Project aims to fill these gaps through a country-wide, multi-faceted approach. Both long-term and rapid assessment research surveys are used to measure population trends and assessments throughout Belize. We work with traditional fishers to provide alternatives to fishing, and use perception surveys to monitor public knowledge of sharks and rays. Through outreach and education, we are educating young people about the important role sharks and rays play in the ecosystem and demonstrating that these vulnerable animals are worth more alive!
Belize lies on the northeastern coast of Central America. Bordered by Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea, Belize is the only country in the region with English as its official language (Spanish and Kriol also spoken) and is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Central American System (SICA) and the Caribbean Economic Community (CARICOM).
As a major section of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system and part of both Central America and the Caribbean community, Belize is well situated for the study and conservation of highly migratory marine megafauna.
Belize has been proactive in the conservation of sharks and rays with the declaration of the Hol Chan’s “Zone D” extension in 1999 that encompasses Shark Ray Alley to protect the populations of Nurse Sharks (Ginglylmostoma cirratum) and Southern Stingrays (Dasyatis americana) and Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve in 2000, one of three critical feeding sites used by the migratory Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus) on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
By default of its geological uniqueness, the Blue Hole Natural Monument, which hosts Caribbean Reef Sharks (Carcharhinus perezi), also protects sharks though its no-take policy. Furthermore, two fishing gear types that are responsible for the majority of all shark and ray captures worldwide have been banned from Belize’s 14 Marine protected areas. The Belize Government extended full species protection to Whale Sharks in 2003 and to Nurse Sharks in 2011. Belize has also actively promoted a finning ban through the regional fisheries management organization ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) and, although this has not yet been adopted, Belize passed a domestic finning ban that completes harmonized legislation spanning Central America that requires sharks to be landed with fins attached or partially attached. The GOB signed an agreement with ICCAT to release threshers when captured and to prohibit the commercial fishing of hammerhead species.
Sharks and rays have also been included as species of interest and concern in eight of Belize’s 14 MPA management plans. We are aiming to ensure inclusion of the sea’s top predators into all Marine Protected Areas (MPA) plans by 2018. This means that special attention will be paid to sharks in cases of illegal fishing as well as better reporting of encounters or sightings during standard monitoring of fish, reefs and fisheries landings in nearby communities.