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Shark Conservation Workshop in Belize
May 16, 2009

From May 12- 15, 2009, IOCS research scientists Dr. Demian Chapman, Dr. Ellen Pikitch, and Debra Abercrombie participated in a shark conservation workshop at Glover’s Reef, Belize. The workshop was convened by the Association of Protected Areas Management Organizations’ (APAMO) and included representatives from the Belize Department of Fisheries and the Wildlife Conservation Society. This workshop was the first of its kind, focusing on shark fishing and shark conservation in Belize and had its origin in a high-profile incident in which a number of nurse sharks near a popular Belizean dive spot were killed by fishermen. The incident was captured on film by locals and publicized widely by the national media, bringing the nation’s shark conservation issues into the spotlight. APAMO approached Dr. Chapman at that time to discuss protecting sharks in Belizean waters and the idea for the workshop came about as a way to begin exploring potential management options.

Workshop attendees discussed the current status of shark conservation in Belize, the types of regulations needed in the future, and the science that was already in place to guide the development of these regulations. Presentations by IOCS scientists covered shark biology, shark movement patterns, fisheries and how Belizean marine reserves were presently working to protect certain kinds of sharks. After giving the Belize Department of Fisheries data to incorporate into management planning, participants at the workshop were taken on field trips to receive hands-on experience in shark tagging and field identification--a technique that generates some of the data required for management plans.

The most significant progress made recently in shark conservation involved a two-year project with the Belize Department of Fisheries on the issue of restricting gillnet and longline use. Dr. Chapman advised the department on the negative impacts of these fishing techniques previously used to catch sharks outside, and sometimes inside, local marine protected areas. The department responded to the information by specifically banning the use of gillnets and longlines in two Belizean marine protected areas that they were already in the process of re-zoning--Southwater Caye and Sapodillo Caye. This ban effectively established over 160,000 acres of habitat in which commercial scale shark fishing is now prohibited.

With a gillnet and longline ban already in place at Glover’s Reef, the model was used for Southwater Caye and Sapodillo Caye, with hopes that the initiative will spread to other areas. At present video data is being collected on Southwater Caye to look at how shark numbers will improve with the latest policy change.

The workshop helped lead to further collaboration between IOCS scientists who are already working with APAMO on video shark surveys on reefs throughout Belize. These video surveys use underwater cameras mounted on metal frames with baited units placed inside and outside of the reserves in order to count how many sharks swim into the field of view over a standard one hour period. With the aid of this surveying technique, Dr. Chapman and his students, Mark Bond and Jasmine Valentin, are in the process of determining whether there are a greater number of sharks and other large fish present inside marine protected areas than outside. This will provide proof that the strategy is useful for these threatened animals. With the assistance of APAMO, IOCS shark conservation work has been more widely publicized in Belize, which has led to greater public awareness of these issues and the many benefits of marine protected areas.

Shark conservation is, in fact, an integral part of maintaining a healthy ocean ecosystem. Sharks are top predators and their presence provides a control over the system they inhabit. In this way, sharks help to stabilize the food web as a whole.

Along with the positive effects sharks have on their ecosystem, their presence helps to stimulate economic growth in the tourism industry - a large source of income for many island nations. “With dive tourism booming in Belize, large predators on the reef are some of the star attractions that maintain a critical source of revenue in this developing country. Shark conservation is therefore not only sustainable in terms of environmental policy, it is also key to Belize’s economic growth as a tourist destination,” said Dr. Chapman.

IOCS has been studying sharks in Belize for more than ten years. The shark conservation and issues problems that face this nation are similar in nature to those issues found in most tropical developing countries. In these areas, as a whole, there is a lack of scientific information on sharks, fisheries are poorly monitored, and the science is not available to conduct assessments of the fisheries. Information derived from IOCS shark research and conservation efforts in Belize is translatable to other tropical developing countries and can help establish marine reserves around the globe.

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