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Belize shows how fishers and researchers can collaborate to protect sharks

Caribbean reef shark. Image by Andy Mann.

  • A new study found that Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezi) experienced a decline between 2009 and 2019 at Glovers Reef Marine Reserve, a marine protected area off the coast of Belize.
  • The researchers theorized that the decline had to do with legal shark fishing that had been permitted on the edges of the MPA since 2016.
  • The researchers worked with government officials and the fishing community to implement no-take zones that extended 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) around Glover’s Reef Atoll, as well as around two other sites: Lighthouse Reef Atoll and Turneffe Atoll.
  • While it’s too early to tell if the new restrictions are having a positive impact, experts say they’re hopeful that Caribbean reef sharks will bounce back.

When marine ecologist Katie Flowers first started conducting research at Glovers Reef Marine Reserve, a marine protected area (MPA) in Belize, she found a thriving population of Caribbean reef sharks. Then, about six years ago, shark numbers started to plummet across the MPA.

“We weren’t exactly expecting them to decline,” Flowers of Florida International University told Mongabay. “In fact, this was a study site for my Ph.D. [that] I was using as an allocation where there were a lot of sharks.”

In a new paper, Flowers and colleagues suggest that Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezi) at Glovers Reef Marine Reserve — an MPA of 35,067 hectares (86,652 acres) — experienced a decline during a study period that spanned from 2009 to 2019. The researchers theorized that this had something to do with the legal shark fishing that had been permitted on the edges of the MPA since 2016.

“We know that the sharks are using the edge [of the MPA],” Flowers said. “They don’t really care about the boundaries of the MPA. They’re moving in and out.”

Even before the paper was published, study co-author and shark expert Demian Chapman and colleagues started sharing data with the Belize Fisheries Department to illustrate the potential fishing issue.

Glovers Reef in Belize. Image by Katie Flowers.

Beverley Wade, who once worked as an administrator for the Belize Fisheries Department but is now the director of fisheries, told Mongabay the information was “well received” by both the government and the fishing community. She brought the information to the National Shark Working Group, a multi-stakeholder body composed of government officials, members of the fishing community and researchers, that was established in 2015. Through a series of meetings, the group discussed the scientific findings and possible solutions.

“We’re very proud … that we were able to have that kind of engagement, that interface between science and actual management, which is not necessarily common in fisheries globally,” Wade told Mongabay.

Based on recommendations made by the researchers, the National Shark Working Group decided to ban shark fishing within a 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) band around the perimeter of Glover’s Reef Atoll, as well as around Lighthouse Reef Atoll and Turneffe Atoll, which are also MPAs.

Flowers said she believes these new restrictions will be enough to help Caribbean reef sharks bounce back, despite the fact that the species is slow to mature and reproduce.

“A lot of people want to ban shark fishing everywhere,” she said. “But so many people around the world rely on fishing for sustenance, for survival. And the shark fishery is very important to Belize. So what we’re doing is working directly with that community and getting them engaged with science.”

There’s no population data for Caribbean reef sharks, but the researchers estimate there’s still a healthy population of the species in the region.

Hector Martinez, a resident of the coastal village of Riversdale who has fished for sharks for nearly a decade and serves on the National Shark Working Group, said he and other members of the fishing community were supportive of the changes.

See related: In Argentina, sport fishers are reeling in threatened sharks to save them

Caribbean reef shark. Image by Global Fin Print.

“We felt good about that because it was based on their findings that sharks were depleted in Belize,” Martinez told Mongabay. “They gave a good reason for [making the changes] and we’re also part of that so we agreed to all of it.”

However, he added there are still some “mixed feelings” in the fishing community about the changes. “Some of them like everything that is happening and some of them hate everything and some of them are just in between,” he said.

In 2019, Chapman, a senior scientist of Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, hired Martinez and several other shark fishers to help with his team’s research. Martinez, who also supplements his income with lobster fishing and tour guiding, said he’s actually stopped shark fishing since he was hired as a research assistant. However, he added he would likely start shark fishing again if the research work stopped.

Chapman said the collaboration between researchers and the fishing community in Belize has been a “big breakthrough.”

“I think it’s really important that science is for everybody,” Chapman said. “Science changes people’s lives. And it’s important that people whose lives are going to be changed by science the most — in this case, the fisherfolk — are involved in the production of the science and the communication of the science and the interpretation of it.”

Wade said she believes Belize has a unique opportunity to provide a model for sustainable shark fishing with the rest of the world.

“The success of these measures means everything,” she said. “What we need to concentrate our efforts on now is to ensure that they’re effectively employed at the end of the day, and that we continue the very important interface and dialogue with all these key partners.”

While Flowers says it’s still too early to know if the restrictions will have a positive impact on Caribbean shark populations, she said she’s “convinced” the new measures will be enough.

“The hope is that these extended no-fishing zones will give the sharks the chance they need to recover,” she said, “and hopefully that helps them through all of Belize.”

Citation:

Flowers, K., Babcock, E., Papastamatiou, Y., Bond, M., Lamb, N., Miranda, A., … Chapman, D. (2022). Varying reef shark abundance trends inside a marine reserve: Evidence of a Caribbean reef shark decline. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 683, 97-107. doi:10.3354/meps13954

Banner image caption: Caribbean reef shark. Image by Andy Mann.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: The Red List recently upgraded the conservation status of four tuna species, including Atlantic bluefin. Is it really OK to eat tuna now, as has been reported? It’s complicated, listen here:

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