Saving sharks: marine conservation through community outreach and participatory research, Belize

Rachel Graham is the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Gulf and Caribbean Sharks and Rays Program 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 Belize’s top marine predators.

Spectacular natural features, including the world’s second largest barrier reef, and an abundance of marine life, make Belize 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 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, 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 is collaborating with stakeholders, including the Fisheries Department, to put in place Belize’s first National Plan of Action for Sharks, ensuring that their protection is included in the management plans of seven marine protected areas (MPAs) along the coast.

Raising awareness and getting people on the side of sharks are prerequisites to securing their survival. Giving talks and running field work trips with schools and local communities, Rachel is already seeing that views towards sharks can change.

“Many of the fishers I’ve worked with later approach me to tell me they release sharks accidently 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

Full winners list