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The past 30 years have seen rapid and large scale declines in the populations of many species of sharks and rays globally. Of the 1150 known species that have been assessed, over a quarter are now threatened with extinction, and much of the public is generally indifferent or unsupportive of their conservation. MarAlliance, with the support of the Wildlife Conservation Network, is working to change that.
Working globally with a particular focus on the Mesoamerican Reef, MarAlliance explores, enables and inspires positive change for threatened marine wildlife, their critical habitats, and dependent human communities. No better microcosm of these threats exists than in Belize, a small tropical country along the Mesoamerican Reef, the second longest barrier reef in the world. Here, sharks bring in millions of dollars in tourism annually, yet they are still unsustainably fished for export to neighboring countries. New approaches to conservation stewardship are needed to address these issues.
MarAlliance is asking the tourism sector and the country’s visitors to step up to demonstrate that live sharks and rays are worth far more alive than dead – they are key to generating renewable income and engaging tourists. Our proposed “citizen science” project will engage tourists and tour operators, fishers, decision-makers, and students to change attitudes – we aim to turn them into shark stewards and help to reverse the decline in sharks and rays.
Our long term goal is to stem the decline of shark and ray populations in Belize. Our goal for this project is to fully engage the tourism sector to advocate for the conservation of sharks. There are three key objectives to meeting this goal:
To achieve these, we will conduct a series of media campaigns (based on the results of our national survey) – the goal of these campaigns is to show that sharks are worth more alive than dead. The audiences will be the tourism sector, the fisheries industry, local students, and decision-makers.
By informing and engaging visitors and locals about good tourism and conservation practices with respect to sharks and rays, we help to shape a future for the conservation of sharks and rays in Belize. From this platform, we will then work to engage people from all of these sectors in a national citizen science project: conducting the Caribbean’s first shark and ray count in Belize (similar to the annual Audubon backyard bird-count or Christmas count and the Fiji shark count).
The project will primarily involve:
Top shark and ray operators will be highlighted on the project website. Specifically, we will work with the top shark and ray operators in-country, including Amigos del Mar, Ramon’s Dive Shop, Belize Pro Dive, Belize Diving Adventures, Belize Diving Services, Frenchie’s, Hamanasi, Seahorse, Sea Sports, Huracan, and Splash dive shop across the main dive and snorkel tourism centers in San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Hopkins and Placencia.
Our primary government and NGO counterparts include the Hol Chan Marine Reserve staff, the Belize Tourism Industry Association, The Belize Tourism Board, the Belize Audubon Society, and Southern Environmental Association. To get the message out widely we will work with Belize’s news media channels who have supported our work and focus on morning show appearances and news pieces that have been well received.
This project will help us to broadly engage with the tourism sector in a more dynamic and effective way – to date, our work has mostly focused on science, policy, conservation, and education of primary school children, but it is crucial for us to work to engage the tourism sector as well since they have a direct impact on these animals. With shark numbers continuing to decline and fisheries still permitted, the tourism sector is going to play a critical role in reversing declines as this is the highest foreign exchange earner in Belize. This project will enable us to engage with a key audience to highlight the value of live sharks and rays to the country and reef ecosystems.
This project provides excellent value for money as the large-scale national survey was completed and all data entered. Strong relationships have been forged throughout the tourism industry; tour operators and visitors are keen to see more protection enacted and are looking for a means to be engaged that further improves Belize’s profile for shark tourism.