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The Belize Shark Project (BSP) promotes the management and conservation of sharks and rays in Belize through research, capacity-building, outreach, conservation and policy-support. We are based in Belize and work with partners in the private and public sectors, local and foreign academia and non-governmental organizations to help strengthen the country’s populations of sharks and rays.

Table of Content

Why Sharks

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).

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.

Research

Shark & Ray Surveys

Why indeed! We get this question from numerous quarters, yet shark and ray populations are rapidly declining throughout the world due to overfishing, habitat loss, and pollution.

In most countries we do not have a baseline from which to establish the effectiveness of management or conservation actions when these are implemented. Notably, we are interested in gauging the effectiveness marine protected areas – a widespread and key conservation tool in protecting sharks and rays during all or part of these animals’ lifecycles.

RISKS TO SPECIES

An estimated 24% of all shark and rays species assessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are now threated with extinction. On top of that, at least 47% of the species assessed are still considered deficient of the data necessary to assess population status.

These species, though often not targeted by fisheries, are still heavily impacted by them. This type of bycatch is often unreported and therefore difficult to measure.

Additionally, there is little fisheries-independent information available on the abundance and health of shark and ray populations in most regions.

SURVEY METHODS

One of the most widely used methods for assessing populations is to measure the changes in abundance of a species over time: this can tell us if populations are stable or are declining. Standardized sampling surveys which are repeated over a period of many years are one of the best ways to measure abundance.

We use a standardized longline as our primary survey method to estimate the abundance of sharks and rays. Longlines allow for a “hands on” approach, and each animal is brought boat-side and identified to species, measured, sexed, tagged with an external identifying marker, and then released. Additional samples, such as tissue for genetic or heavy metal analyses, can also be collected.

Long term monitoring, such as our annual survey at Lighthouse Reef Atoll, help identify population trends, while rapid assessments give us snapshots of the species diversity, habitat use, and local abundance of sharks and rays.

To complement the longline surveys, two other types of methods are used to determine the abundance and habitat use of marine animals. Simply constructed Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV) stations are a non-invasive method of assessing the abundance of species of sharks and rays, while in-water transects are primarily conducted to estimate the sizes, species composition, and density of sea turtles, stingrays and large piscivorous (fish-eating) fishes.

Spatial Ecology

Spatial ecology is the study of an organism’s use of different habitats and ecosystems over its life span.

A variety of factors influence spatial ecology, including, but not limited to: food availability, habitat type, season, reproductive activity, and predator avoidance.

Not surprisingly, as an animal grows and ages, it will often change its pattern of habitat use. We study the spatial ecology of sharks and rays to detect these patterns and to identify those habitats that may be critical to the success of their populations.

SHARKS AND RAYS

Though several shark and ray species may overlap within a specific region, when examined more closely, we often see that certain species are primarily found within distinct habitats.

Sharks are often classified as highly migratory, but while many species undergo large migrations, many return to the same areas year after year. Whale sharks travel thousands of miles in a year, but can be reliably found at their favorite feeding spots in the Caribbean during spring months. In contrast, reef-associated sharks like the Caribbean reef shark, may spend the majority of their life at one reef.

Because individual species of sharks and rays have very different spatial ecology, it is important to collect species-specific data throughout a region.

ONGOING RESEARCH

By using our standardized survey methods (longlines, Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV) stations and in-water transects), we are determining which habitats species are using, and if that habitat use changes over their life histories. Identification of feeding, reproductive, and nursery habitats will enable managers to effectively protect species based on their individual needs.

Fisheries

For coastal developing countries, fishing for a range of species is often important for the livelihood, culture, and health of the human population.

However, according to fishers interviewed in 2006-2008, shark fishing in Belize underwent a boom and bust cycle in the 1980s. By 1993, the fisheries cooperatives no longer accepted and marketed shark meat as it was not considered of great enough value. Although shark is still consumed on a very small scale in Belize (in panades and through shark oil) the majority of shark products are today exported as salt fish and fins to neighboring countries.

While we know that sharks are being caught and landed (brought to shore and either consumed or sold locally and exported to other countries), current data on species and numbers of sharks removed from the waters each year are unavailable and difficult to come by due to the shadowy and dispersed nature of the fishery. Hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini and S. mokarran) are fished in Belize, but international conservation organizations have raised alarms about their declining populations. Hammerheads are Red Listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Endangered globally.

SHARKS ARE PROTECTED… IN THEORY

Recently, Belize supported the 2013 listing of S. lewini and S. mokarran on Appendix II by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES): Appendix II requires monitoring and regulation of international trade in the listed species as well as proof that the trade is not further impacting populations.

The Belize Government signed an agreement with the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) that prohibits the commercial fishing of hammerheads. These two agreements indicate that hammerheads should not be fished and sold and they cannot be traded across borders without proof that local hammerhead populations can support trade.

YET THERE IS SIGNIFICANT MORTALITY

Fishing operations in Belize and the Mesoamerican Reef Region (Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras) are generally on a small scale, often conducted from small vessels in areas that are easily accessible from shore.

However, the use of destructive gears, such as nets and longlines, can have a negative influence on fish populations and endanger the success of future fisheries. Sharks are especially vulnerable to being caught by nets and longlines and are often targeted by fishers.

Sharks are characterized by slow growth, late maturity, and low reproductive output, meaning that once a population is depleted, it can be very slow to recover. For instance, landing of dusky sharks (Carcharhinus obscurus) has been prohibited since 1999 in US waters, but the stock is still considered to be overfished due to ongoing bycatch mortality. Projections for recovery of this formerly abundant species indicate a low probability that populations will rebound to previous levels within 100 years unless fishing mortality can be reduced by a substantial amount.

THE NEED FOR MORE KNOWLEDGE

A better understanding of the fisheries, fishing effort and landings coupled with trade flows will help to identify whether these fisheries are sustainable and meet international convention requirements. At present, there are no sustainable shark and ray fisheries known in tropical countries.

Human Health

This is a question many people ask and is key to determining whether it even makes sense to fish and eat shark.

SHARKS ACCUMULATE HIGH LEVELS OF TOXINS

As a top predator on the food chain, sharks are known to accumulate toxins acquired from the fish and other prey they eat throughout the course of their life. There are several published papers indicating that shark meat contains high levels of methyl mercury, a potent neurotoxin that is often derived from industrial processes, notably cement manufacturing.

THESE LEVELS ARE HIGH IN BELIZE TOO

The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends not eating any shark captured in the Gulf of Mexico. But what about Belize, nestled in the crook of the Western Caribbean? What methyl mercury loading could they have considering we are a non-industrialized country?

During the course of our fisheries-dependent surveys conducted in Southern Belize, Lighthouse Reef Atoll, and Belize City, we took tissue samples for mercury and stable isotopes analyses to assess mercury loading and provide initial insights into foraging strategies of sharks.

Analysis of samples was performed in collaboration with the Biodiversity Research Institute (US). Of the 172 samples of sharks analyzed, over 80% were above the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory levels of 0.3 parts per million (ppm) and over 37% were above the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and World Health Organisation (WHO) advisory levels of 1.0 ppm.

Although alarming, these results are not wholly unsurprising. Sharks are apex predators that are known to biomagnify toxins including heavy metals such as mercury, due to the many food chain linkages existing in the marine environment.

HOW DOES MERCURY AFFECT HUMANS?

In humans, absorption of large pulses of mercury and continued ingestion above the advisory levels impacts cognitive abilities, memory and depresses serotonin levels. This can lead to depression and aggression and can negatively affect fetal development.

Affected fetuses suffer permanent damage to brain cells leading to, on the least problematic scale, future problems associated with learning, weakened attention spans and anger management among others.

US EPA and FDA advisories suggest that pregnant women should avoid eating fish such as shark, king mackerel and not eat more than two meals of fish or shellfish of lower mercury content a week (no more than 12 ounces or two average meals (see: What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish). Because of the potential for developmental problems, these advisories are considered too high for pregnant women and young children, with suggestions that 0.12 ppm would be the acceptable threshold for these groups.

WOULD YOU RISK IT?

More sampling is required to determine the breadth of the mercury contamination throughout the trophic levels and identify point sources, if they exist. With these data in hand we will be well placed to develop advisory levels on fish consumption on a species basis for Belize.

Meanwhile, it is advisable to not eat shark meat, a suggestion that mirrors the US EPA and FDA’s advice for the Gulf of Mexico.

Outreach and Education

Kids Meet Sharks

Wi noh frayd fu shaak!

Children are the future of our country and what better way to ensure a future for sharks and rays than to introduce children to these magnificent animals first hand.

The Kids Meet Sharks pilot project is an initiative of WCS’s Belize Shark Project that aims to introduce local children to sharks and rays, help them to understand the animals’ importance for the ecosystem and dispel fears that they might have of sharks… And there is nothing to dispel fears and myths like meeting sharks and rays face to face. For many of the children, it is their first time swimming and for most, their first time seeing the barrier reef and sharks and/or rays.

Students and teachers receive lessons in shark biology, behavior, fisheries and conservation and are then taken to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley for their shark and ray encounters and snorkeling on the Barrier Reef. The excursions also provide excellent opportunities to raise awareness about Marine Protected Areas and their importance to fisheries resilience and the local economy.

UB Megafauna Courses

Partnering with the University of Belize

To date, we have trained 63 University of Belize students during three 4-day courses. The training included topics on fisheries-independent megafauna monitoring techniques for sharks, rays and turtles.

These include longline preparation, deployment, animal handling, in-water transects, abundance estimation work, size estimation, baited remote underwater video set up and deployment, data collection and basic analytical techniques.

Following the first successful course in 2011, two courses were held in April and June 2013 where we trained a total of 48 students in fisheries-independent megafauna monitoring techniques. 6 students are sharing their new knowledge as volunteers with the BSP in a range of outreach events.

Public Events

The Belize Shark Project engages the public regularly and introduces them to sharks and rays through a host of public events including the National Agriculture Show, Lobsterfest Events, Reef Week and others nationwide.

Throughout the years we have presented in numerous local communities including Punta Gorda, Placencia, Belize City, Belmopan, Sarteneja, Caye Caulker, San Pedro, and Copper Bank. We also work regionally in the Bay Islands (Honduras), Quintana Roo (Mexico) and Cuba.

Documentary

Winner of the “Best Environmental Film” award at the 6th Belize International Film Festival, Where have our sharks gone? examines the plight of sharks and their important role in marine ecosystems, internationally and in Belize.

Current research techniques and interviews with fisherman and tourists are presented along with suggested conservation measures.

With stunning cinematography and a compelling narrative, Where have our sharks gone? is a captivating tribute to these magnificent creatures.

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