Saving sharks: marine conservation through community outreach and participatory research, Belize
Rachel Graham is the Founder and Executive Director of MarAlliance and a member of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group. A Belizean national and a marine conservationist for over 20 years, she leads a dedicated local team in efforts to conserve top marine predators and other large marine wildlife in Belize and several other tropical countries.
Belize and its spectacular natural features, including the world’s second largest barrier reef, and an abundance of marine life, have made this small country a haven for international tourism, an industry that has become the primary source of income. A quarter of Belizeans now rely on tourism for at least part of their livelihoods.
The abundance of sharks and rays in this part of Central America and the Caribbean is one of Belize’s biggest draws, yet their future, and that of the income they attract, is far from secure. Although not traditionally targeted in local fisheries, shark populations are being plundered by commercial fishers coming into Belizean waters from neighbouring Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
Rachel explains, “As apex predators, sharks are critical to healthy ocean ecosystems and, should they disappear, so too would many irreplaceable marine resources, with catastrophic ecological and economic consequences”. With a third of the world’s shark species vulnerable to extinction, their conservation is urgent.
In 2004, after successfully achieving protection for the globally vulnerable whale shark population in Belize, Rachel moved her focus to the country’s other sharks finding that once abundant species had become locally extinct. This was bad news for local people – without sharks and rays, ecosystems become unbalanced, leading to cascading unpredictable consequences, such as loss of resilience in coral reefs and fisheries, with knock on impacts for both tourism and food security.
In response, Rachel created a broad collaboration with a range of stakeholders to establish the first baseline for sharks and rays in Belize and subsequently throughout the broader MesoAmerican Reef. Rachel co-founded the National Shark Advisory groups in Belize, Guatemala and Honduras and has supported the drafting of the National Plan of Action for sharks in Belize. Working with her dynamic MarAlliance team, she has trained hundreds of traditional fishers and local biologists and students in shark science and monitoring techniques, and created both local awareness of conservation needs and capacities for the long term monitoring of the region’s sharks and rays.
“Many of the fishers I’ve worked with later approach me to tell me they release sharks accidentally caught on their hooks whereas before they would kill them. Other locals who have heard me talk or have been involved in research now eagerly tell me when they encounter a shark in the water and speak with excitement, whereas in the past many would speak with fear.”
Glyn Davies, Director of Programmes for WWF-UK, said of Rachel receiving the Whitley Gold Award, ‘In WWF’s anniversary year it is tremendous to be able to support Rachel in her efforts to protect shark populations in Belize. The presence of these ‘top predators’ maintains the diversity of the entire reef ecosystem as well as maintaining the star attractions for the tourists who visit Belize’s beautiful reef.’
Rachel Graham Gold Award speech, Whitley Awards 2011
Rachel Graham speech at the Whitley Awards 2011
Rachel Graham speaks about the importance of Continuation Funding during the 2015 Whitley Awards Ceremony
Photo credits: Featured image, Rick Miskiv; Hammerhead shark, P.Oxford, MarAlliance