Editor’s note: This story was identified by Patricia Zurita, guest editor for Call to Earth’s ‘Nature’s Highways’ theme.
For sharks, turtles and rays in the Caribbean, the Mesoamerican Reef – which stretches more than 600 miles from Mexico to Honduras – is a busy highway. As the second largest barrier reef in the world, marine species use it to navigate north and south, and its rich mosaic of corals, seagrasses and mangrove forests provide vital food and habitat. .
But like land highways, this maritime corridor can be dangerous. Overfishing, commercial development and the illegal practice of finning endanger species such as whale sharks, reef sharks and manta rays. These creatures are already in a fragile state, with more than a third of the world’s sharks and rays threatened with extinction.
“We are seeing a continuing decline in many sharks and shark populations in most countries where monitoring is ongoing,” says Rachel Graham, founder of MarAlliance, a nonprofit organization focused on protecting sharks and rays. across the Americas. “Our goal is to reverse this decline,” she adds.
Why Belize’s fishing communities are defending sharks
By monitoring threatened marine life in the region, MarAlliance is able to glean important knowledge about populations that can help inform conservation and push for political action. But rather than oppose the local fishing community, the NGO appeals to its help.
“They are the ones who are out at sea every day,” says Graham, “and they are the ones who are going to decide the long-term fate of the sharks and the fish.”
MarAlliance employs up to 60 fishers across its range, mostly on a project basis, training them in data collection and tagging and releasing fish. Not only does this provide an alternative income to fishing communities, making them less dependent on natural resources, but it also teaches them the benefits of a healthy ocean ecosystem and how to fish sustainably.
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Ivan Torres is one such angler. Before working for MarAlliance, he says he used to catch sharks to sell locally as food, but now he’s learned how essential they are to the health of the whole ecosystem. As apex predators, they help keep other populations in check, and by maintaining a balance, they can actually increase anglers’ daily catches.
“I would never fish for sharks again…because now I know how important they are to the sea,” he says.
If this shift in attitude continues to trickle down to fishing communities along the Mesoamerican Reef, Graham has hope for populations of sharks and other species.
“The main threat to sharks is undoubtedly overfishing,” she says, and by reforming the industry, populations can rebound.
In 2020, Belize banned the use of gillnets, large panels of nets that hang in the water and are known to entangle large marine animals. The impact of the ban is already noticeable in areas such as Lighthouse Reef, an atoll off the mainland, says Graham.
It was an area suffering from overfishing, with some boats crossing international waters to exploit its resources. But between 2019 and 2021, MarAlliance recorded a 10-fold increase in shark populations on the atoll. “What we are seeing is nothing short of miraculous,” she said.
But these kinds of regulations need to be replicated across the highway for lasting impact, and countries need to find a sustainable balance between fishers and fishers.
Graham hopes that through education and providing an economic alternative to fishing communities, MarAlliance will help ensure safe passage for megafauna along the reef.
“We have to find this win-win strategy between the livelihoods of the fishermen and the survival of the sharks,” she says.