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Ambergris Caye’s youth ready to beat plastic pollution

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Outreach & Education Officer Cynthia Xiu engaging students from San Pedro Roman Catholic School
Photo: © Rotaract Club of Ambergris Caye

As part of our outreach and education program to change behaviors in demand and use of plastics, we recently joined forces with Rotaract Club of Ambergris Caye to create an interactive awareness raising campaign on how to curb the threat of plastic pollution. In one week’s time, outreach staff of both organizations reached over 500 students while visiting participating schools on the Caye. The island-wide campaign culminates this Saturday (3 November) in a unique art exhibition by the students.

The science-based campaign taught upper division students how plastic pollution not only affects the environment, but also their own lives and how they can act to reduce plastic pollution. This Saturday’s symbolic, one-day exhibition, showcasing artwork made of recycled plastic, will tell a powerful story from the change-makers of the future to all visitors, including fellow students, parents, teachers, principals and journalists.

These events are part of our global public engagement work which supports the protection of marine wildlife and and their critical habitats. Our experts share educational information and scientific knowledge with different community members, such as students, parents, fishers, tourists, visitors and policy makers.

“Our team at MarAlliance is convinced that outreach and education work is a long-term commitment to change behavior, which is why we targeted the next generation of environmental ambassadors during this campaign. We organize fun activities to spark the enthusiasm of youngsters and hope they will become the future stewards of nature, whom our oceans and its wildlife so desperately need,” Ms. Estela Requena, MarAlliance Finance and Operations Coordinator, concluded.

Three different schools – Holy Cross Anglican School, San Pedro Roman Catholic School and New Horizon SDA School – took part in the campaign which received support from ECI Development, Grand Baymen Belize and Banyan Bay Suites.

Cabo Verde’s newborn sharks are at risk

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Paragaleus pectoralis juvenile – endemic to Cabo Verde and this region

As with all fish, sharks also start out small…sometimes, very small. The world’s largest fish, the whale shark historically known to reach up to 20m (66ft) has young that on average measure 40-55cm long (1.5ft) when born. And although mysteries still surround where whale sharks are pupped and grow up when small, the birthing and growing out sites for many other species of sharks and rays, collectively known as elasmobranchs, are becoming increasingly known.

Our work focuses not only on threatened marine fauna but also their critical habitats and, for sharks, one of those habitats is a shark nursery.* These are sites where sharks are pupped (born) and spend the first months or years of their lives growing in an area that is relatively protected until they are large enough to avoid most predators, as sharks and rays do not benefit from any parental care.

You might think these areas are hidden and remote, but sometimes they are literally found under your nose. This is the case with Sal Rei Bay in Boa Vista, the easternmost island in the archipelago of Cabo Verde, West Africa.

Snorkeler in Sal Rei Bay

Over the past two years, our team determined through visual censuses, fishing surveys and underwater camera trapping that Sal Rei Bay provides the ideal nursery area for a host of invertebrates, finfish and particularly sharks. Indeed, few shark nurseries had previously been identified in West Africa making this find regionally important. Sal Rei Bay is teeming with neonate (recently born) Blacktips (Carcharhinus limbatus), Milk Sharks (Rhizoprionodon acutus), the endemic Atlantic Weasel Sharks (Paragaleus pectoralis), and even the endangered and highly migratory Scalloped Hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini). To date, we have identified a total of eight species of juvenile sharks that kindly share this small bay with tourists and the people of Sal Rei.

Shark populations are extremely vulnerable to fishing due to their small number of offspring following long gestation periods – for Hammerheads it is 10 months, Blacktips around 11 months, and Milk Sharks a full year. As Sal Rei town continues to encroach on the bay, more sharks, including baby sharks, are frequently caught by recreational and artisanal (traditional/subsistence) fishers. Endangered Hammerheads are especially vulnerable despite being nationally protected, due to their rapid mortality when on the line or when entangled in nets.

To catalyze the conservation of these threatened species, our team of marine biologists is working hand in hand with the island’s fishers and the newly-formed fisher cooperative to identify, characterize and protect shark nurseries, to ensure the best start in life for these juvenile sharks. This research and conservation focus on shark nurseries is highlighted by leading shark scientists and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as an effective means of improving shark survival.

Local government is increasingly taking an interest in safeguarding the bay as pressures mount from increased tourism to Boa Vista, further leading to a rise in fishing effort and greater recreational use of the bay. The close proximity of the bay to the island’s capital is also a great opportunity for experiential learning: Hammerheads are fast becoming an icon for our outreach and educational program geared at teaching local students about marine life and research and the importance of conservation through practical learning – including taking them out snorkeling in the bay with the small juvenile sharks.

Based on our field work and discussions with fishers, we believe Boa Vista may host several important elasmobranch nurseries. Given their significance for regional shark conservation, protecting these sites is a priority. Continued efforts are needed to ensure the issue stays high on the agenda of all stakeholders involved and the people of Sal Rei champion the bay’s young sharks. What can you do to help sharks when they are most vulnerable? Consider supporting our education and outreach efforts or volunteering to help with the research and monitoring of the shark nursery sites.

*A site is considered a nursery area for sharks if it has the following characteristics:  (1) sharks are more commonly encountered in the area than other areas; (2) sharks have a tendency to remain or return for extended periods; and (3) the area or habitat is repeatedly used across years.

 

 

 

Using the earbones of fish to fill knowledge gaps in the region’s deep-sea fisheries research

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The earbones of a fish – called otoliths – have bands, just like trees, which reveal the fish’s age and other key markers from its life. These delicate, translucent structures are the focus of MarAlliance’s latest groundbreaking study of several deep-sea species’ life history. For this research, we set up a highly specialized lab to investigate the secrets that otoliths carry. We take measurements such as length, width, depth and the weight of the otolith, and use thin-sectioning techniques to examine the otolith rings (see photo story), to give us a robust estimate of the fish’s age and other characteristics. This information will assist in determining the best ways to protect fish populations and ensure that fisheries will continue to thrive throughout the region. At the same time, we are exploring lower-cost solutions to obtain the same critical data.

Otoliths are amazing study material because they reflect the fish’s environment and life, its age, and how fast it reaches critical life stages like reproductive age. Our current research specifically targets the deep-sea species, because they tend to live longer and reproduce at a much older age than their shallow-water counterparts. Very little is known about the lifespan and growth rates of deep-sea fishes worldwide, and especially in the MesoAmerican Region. Our findings will fill a sizeable knowledge gap.

Our study focuses on deep-water groupers (family Serranidae) and snappers (family Lutjanidae), as these are the most commonly captured species in the region’s deep-sea fisheries. Groupers are often the first to be overexploited, as they are long-lived and grow to be very large. Analyses of otoliths of Yellowedge Grouper captured in the Gulf of Mexico show they can live up to 80 years. We are also studying four deep-water snapper species: Queen, Wenchman, Silk, and Blackfin Snappers. We suspect that Queen Snappers may be fairly long-lived based on preliminary work by colleagues in the Pacific. However, little research has been done on the other snapper species. Wenchman are captured frequently in the deep-sea fisheries in the Caribbean, while the Silk Snapper is probably one of the most important species in the region, especially in Belize, because it is heavily targeted.

The photo story below describes the method used to unveil the otolith’s secrets.

 

This technical project requires highly specialized equipment and materials that are often lacking in many Caribbean countries. The costs to outsource the type of otolith research we are performing are often beyond modest fisheries’ research budgets. MarAlliance is looking for affordable and high-quality solutions for science and funding in tropical countries to address this problem, in collaboration with Sea Leucas, a multi-disciplinary consultancy company based in the region that provides fisheries science support.

We are exploring a range of cost-effective methods that can be used as a proxy for determining a fish’s age range, including whether using just one of the otolith measurements, such as its weight, will provide a reasonably-accurate estimate of the age of the fish. In this way, once all the data are validated, countries with limited research budgets will have a low-cost technique for determining the age of a fish that is easy to implement and will become an invaluable method for countries that need more data to understand and manage discrete stock structures of vulnerable fish.

Research partners include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Our findings will feed into an ecological risk assessment for fisheries to inform management, conservation and government stakeholders in the MesoAmerican Region about which species are most threatened by overfishing. Final findings will come out in three years’ time. In the meanwhile, look out for papers we will be publishing based on the ongoing research.

 

Community champions: Guna sea savior Leyson Navarro

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Leyson out at sea to monitor marine megafauna in Guna Yala

“I want to support my community members by using my knowledge for their wellbeing and for a better use of our natural riches.” Leyson’s eyes fill with pride when he talks about his family, studies and indigenous background. Originally from a small community called Ugupseni (“small beach” in Guna language) located on an island covered by lush forest, the 33 year-old son in a family of five brothers, is the only one who studied marine biology and now wants to give back to his community.

The place he calls home is part of an archipelago of almost 400 islands that make up the indigenous region of Guna Yala (formerly known as San Blas) in Panama, only 36 of them are inhabited. The Guna people use the islands’ resources for fishing and hunting. Born and bred in a place surrounded by the sea, Leyson spent most of his free time swimming. He grew up to love the sea and its wildlife, which inspired him to study marine biology.

Lionfish workshop in Guna Yala

Leyson joined MarAlliance in 2017, and has supported our work in the Guna Yala region as a Research Officer ever since by monitoring the area’s sharks and rays, conducting trainings and educational workshops for traditional Guna fishers and raising awareness on how to protect the precious marine wildlife and key habitats of the region. Leyson remembers how it all started, “We built relationships with their leaders and worked with them in areas where they needed us. They told us at first they didn’t care about sharks, but they had a problem with lionfish. So we organized a peer-to-peer training with fishers from Mexico and Belize to show them how to deal with the invasive lionfish.” The successful lionfish project subsequently led to community requests for more education on a range of marine related topics and a keen interest in conducting long-term monitoring of marine wildlife.

Leyson during an outreach workshop with future Guna conservationists

“The work we do is important because we train community members about how the region’s marine diversity can be beneficial to them and how to keep it in good shape. As the indigenous people are the guardians of the islands, the reef and their wildlife, they are gradually assuming responsibility for it. If they manage the marine resources carefully and safeguard their quality, they will be able to continue benefiting from them for generations to come,” he added.

Change is already happening in the communities where MarAlliance works, with fishers adapting their fishing behavior. “Before our work in the region, when the fishers saw a shark, they killed it. Now they tell me that when they see a shark, they don’t harm it because they know the animal is important to the marine ecosystem,” Leyson explained.

However, he feels continued efforts are needed to help Guna people keep their coasts and villages clean, recycle their waste and support the conservation of threatened species in other communities.

Leyson also recognizes that this kind of collaboration only works when it is a two-way stream. Organizations like MarAlliance are learning from the indigenous communities as well, especially from their rich culture, traditions, different local fisheries laws and rules and most certainly from their passion for the wealth of resources nature offers them.

Thinking about the future, Leyson hopes his people will be able to continue to subsist based on the region’s natural resources, like they have always done, thanks to compliance with management plans and regulations, awareness raising campaigns and conservation work. “Being part of an organization that does this kind of work, I can support my community whenever they need me.”

Leyson’s work involves training the youngest community members too

Read more about how we build knowledge and skills across generations of indigenous Guna Yala to save marine wildlife on our Act4SDGs partner page.

MarAlliance founder Dr. Rachel Graham receives Patrick Jones-Chattanooga Zoo Conservation Award

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Rachel Graham at Lighthouse Reef Atoll, Belize

MarAlliance is pleased to announce that founder and Executive Director, Dr. Rachel Graham, received the Patrick Jones-Chattanooga Zoo Conservation Award. The award is an annual recognition by the Zoo Conservation Outreach Group (ZCOG) and the Chattanooga Zoo of excellence in wildlife conservation efforts in the Americas.

Dr. Graham received the award for her work with local fishing communities, NGOs, and local and national governments to identify threats, research needs, and conservation opportunities for marine wildlife and their critical habitats.

As part of the award, Dr. Graham will attend and present her field research efforts in Panama’s Guna Yala region at the Association of Zoos & Aquariums National Conference.

“I am deeply honored and extremely grateful for this award and look forward to presenting MarAlliance’s work with local fishing communities in Panama’s indigenous Guna Yala region at the conference,” Dr. Graham said. “It highlights our strong partnership with local communities to identify conservation opportunities for marine wildlife and responds to the needs of the communities who live among them and are the true wildlife guardians,” she continued.

The presentation will take on Sunday, September 23, 2018 at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, WA. The session is open to all conference attendees.

ZCOG and the Friends of the Chattanooga Zoo established the Patrick Jones Chattanooga Zoo Conservation Award in 1999 honoring the memory of Patrick Jones, a longtime friend and volunteer of the Chattanooga Zoo.

Sharks International: MarAlliance shares a breadth of results and information on sharks and rays

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Sharks International attendees, © Dirceu Tortorello

The start of June saw MarAlliance experts presenting exciting results from our collective shark and ray research efforts at the Sharks International conference – aka the World Cup of Sharks – in Joao Pessao, northeastern Brazil. This shark science and conservation marathon couldn’t have been more timely with both World Environment Day (June 5th) and World Oceans Day (June 8th) taking place that same week.

MarAlliance’s Team represented strongly with results from projects in five countries showcased to over 500 scientists through the lens of six posters and seven oral presentations, many side meetings and, last but not least, a remarkable keynote address by our Executive Director, Dr. Rachel Graham, one of two women scientists invited to give a keynote address at the conference.

Dr. Rachel Graham’s keynote address grabbing the audience attention, © Dirceu Tortorello

Dr. Graham engaged the audience fully by addressing sensitive topics essential to the well-being and sustainability of the global shark research and conservation community. Her address highlighted how shark research and conservation efforts in lower and middle income countries are rightfully transitioning from North-South parachute science and conservation initiatives (which doesn’t build local capacities nor has long-term benefits to the animals, local scientists, or communities) to “south-south” partnerships with local scientists and communities to deliver more durable and grassroots-led science and conservation. She stressed the importance of engaging with local stakeholders before barreling into conservation decision-making, notably when working with fishers “as fishermen have PhDs of the sea and can be wonderful research partners.” Dr. Graham also emphasized outreach is “not a dirty word” and is key to ensure our science has impact. Such efforts to engage with multiple audiences not only enabled MarAlliance to create ambassadors in the fishing and coastal communities who now engage with politicians on conservation topics, but it has also successfully fed our partners’ curiosity and has generated local pride in marine wildlife. She asked the delegates to practice “more inclusion and kindness” at all levels in their work and discussed the challenges for women juggling careers and families in shark science and conservation and the need to find a balance and happiness as this work is often hard, occasionally dangerous and definitely a long-term commitment. By doing so, Dr Graham finally gave a voice to these issues, which have impeded so many women following this path.

Oral presentation on the “Baseline assessment of the coastal elasmobranch fauna of eastern Cabo Verde using baited remote underwater video”

Seven oral presentations spanning several seas and many communities,  highlighted MarAlliance’s participatory research. Incorporating fishers’ sawfish observations in Panama, monitoring with artisanal fishers sharks in the shark sanctuary in Honduras, and insights into the trade and consumption of sharks and rays in Honduras during the Lenten Season were a few of the talks given. Other topics addressed included the movement of grey reef sharks around two grouper spawning aggregations in Micronesia, ecological niche modelling of mantas distribution in the Western Central Atlantic Ocean and deep sea sharks of Meso-America threatened by fisheries interest. Our research in these areas are all providing information to create or refine management measures and prevent further depletion of shark and ray populations.

Panama Country Coordinator Megan Chevis won a professional poster award

The breadth of our work was recognized as Panama Country Coordinator, Megan Chevis, received a professional poster award for the poster entitled Elasmobranch communities on Panama’s Caribbean coast: fisheries-independent monitoring in the Bocas del Toro and Guna Yala archipelagos by Chevis, Leyson, Batista and Graham.

While Sharks International finally wrapped for most of the team, our colleagues from Cabo Verde concluded their trip by putting theory into practice in several Brazilian classrooms. Country Coordinator Zeddy Seymour and Fisher and Field Associate Zé Luís Monteiro visited public schools in João Pessoa as part of expanding the reach of Sharks International and educating about sharks and marine conservation. They relished the chance to speak to kids about attitudes towards sharks, the ocean and the future and reached over 300 kids and eight teachers in two days with new ties forged across the Atlantic between Boavista and Cabo Verde.

Cabo Verde Country Coordinator inspiring Brazilian youth to become marine wildlife champions

After a successful 2018 edition, our team very much looks forward to the next Sharks International conference in 2022 which will be hosted by colleagues in Valencia, Spain. In the interim we have much to do to secure a future for sharks and rays.

Gaby Ochoa, Honduras Country Coordinator and Ivy Baremore, Technical Coordinator

Can’t get enough shark science? Take a peek at our scientific posters:

MarAlliance team at Sharks International

MarAlliance’s World Oceans Day activities mobilized the next generations of decision-makers

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Boa Vista’s next generation of ocean activists

The Ocean is rising and so are we! Every year, on the 8th of June the world celebrates World Oceans Day to highlight its importance for the survival of our blue planet. MarAlliance joined the global movement with activities that spanned the Atlantic Ocean, from Cabo Verde to the Caribbean. From art activities, to marches and media engagement, our support for World Oceans Day was all encompassing.

Cabo Verde

“Together we have the power to protect the oceans”

In the remote island chain of Cabo Verde, off the coast of West Africa, Boa Vista’s streets were flooded by its next generation of ocean activists! When MarAlliance organized a sister march for them to raise their voices in support of the oceans, hundreds of happy kids showed up because “together we can protect the oceans”. This event was made possible thanks to the cooperation of schools, national police, the Boavista town hall, the ministry of Agriculture and Environment and protected areas system in Cabo Verde.

 

Belize

Holy Cross Anglican School students sending a message to Washington DC

Our Belize outreach team worked with students from San Pedro R.C. School and Holy Cross School Belize to share the  importance of healthy populations of sharks and rays for a healthy ocean through interactive games and art. The Holy Cross students even helped to organize an aerial photo shoot to wish all those participating in the global March for the Ocean (M4O) in Washington DC and the San Pedro RC students got their hands dirty to show they are #Crazy4TheOcean! We met and soundly encouraged some fearless marine wildlife champions!

 

Working with such enthusiastic and creative students is extremely gratifying as, through the course of our long-term commitment to education and outreach, we are seeing these students grow up to become dedicated ambassadors for the ocean.

 

Honduras

MarAlliance Honduras staff getting ready for an interview in the Teledisa studio

During this Oceans week we also took to the airwaves with staff members Ely Augustinus and María José Coello Chandias making headlines on national radio and television in Honduras. Caracol Radio and Teledisa invited our colleagues for an interview about #WorldOceansDay and the country’s marine achievements and challenges to date.

Getting back down to earth, MarAlliance and partners also supported the Roatan Reef Guardians Ocean Day of fun in honor of the Oceans, which included kids activities, live music and a workshop on conservation and the prevention of pollution of the reef.

These activities engaged many sectors of the public in several sites and countries and were made possible thanks to the generous contributions of our donors who help us to keep the marine conservation torch aflame and prepare the next generation to carry it.

MarAlliance at Sharks International

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Our Belize experts and Betto the shark are ready for the conference!

Great MarAlliance representation at the Olympics of Sharks Conference: eight of our staff are sharing the results of their work conducted with sharks and rays in six countries with over 600 delegates attending the quadrennial Sharks International conference held in Joao Pessoa, Brazil.

Over the course of the conference week, the team is giving eight presentations and six scientific posters not including a keynote address by our Executive Director Dr. Rachel Graham. We are very much looking forward to learning about new science and sharing results with our shark research and conservation peers and with you! Follow us for sharky news via our Twitter feed at #MarAtSharks2018.

Our MarAlliance experts will unveil sightings of a species thought to be regionally extinct. They will also discuss our long-term community-based monitoring of sharks and rays and how we are the first organization who involves fishers in shark research and large scale behavioral-change projects to engage them in marine wildlife conservation. Top scientists will cover topics which include recommendations on the reduction of unsustainable fishing gear, protection of critical pupping, nursing and feeding habitats, to sharing strategies on how to reverse declines in marine megafauna populations.

You can find us here:
Presentations and posters will also be available to download below in due course.

JUNE 5

Poster sessions: 17:30-19:30

Poster 076: Ivy Baremore – Exhibit Hall (Parahyba)
RESIDENCY, HOME RANGE, AND HABITAT USE PATTERNS OF CARIBBEAN REEF SHARKS AT A REMOTE ATOLL IN BELIZE, CENTRAL AMERICA
| Ivy E. Baremore, Rachel T. Graham

Poster 108: Rachel T Graham – Exhibit Hall (Parahyba)
WAIT, WE’RE STILL ALIVE! CONTEMPORARY PERSISTENCE OF SAWFISH (Pristis spp.) IN HONDURAS| Ely Augustinus, Rachel Graham,  Gabriela Ochoa

Francesco Garzon, graduate student

Poster 116: Francesco Garzon – Exhibit Hall (Parahyba)
POPULATION ASSESSMENT OF NURSE SHARKS (ginglymostoma cirratum) IN BELIZE| Francesco Garzon, Rachel Graham, Ivy Baremore, Zeddy Seymour, Brendan Godley, Cynthia Xiu, Thomas Meyer, Matthew Witt, Lucy Hawkes

 

JUNE 7

08:30: KEYNOTE ADDRESS – Main Auditorium (Sérgio Bernardes)

Dr. Rachel Graham – Are we turning the tide for sharks and rays? Science and conservation impact for elasmobranchs

09:30: Oral presentation – Main Auditorium (Sérgio Bernardes)

ID 188 | I’m not dead yet: a historical and contemporary overview of sawfish distribution and persistence in Panama – Megan Chevis, Ana Batista, Leyson Navarro, Rachel Graham

11:45: Oral presentation – Auditorium 2 (Cabedelo)

ID 506 | Home range, movement and trophic opportunism of grey reef sharks, Carcharhinus amblyrhinchos, around two grouper (Epinephelidae) spawning aggregations in Pohnpei, Micronesia – Rachel Graham, K. L. Rhodes, I. E. Baremore

16:15: Oral presentation – Main Auditorium (Sérgio Bernardes)

ID 111 | Beyond boundaries: Ecological niche modelling of Manta ray distribution in the Western Central Atlantic Ocean – Francesco Garzon, Rachel T. Graham, Lucy Hawkes, Stephen Pikesley, Matthew Witt

16:30: Oral presentation – Main Auditorium (Sérgio Bernardes)

ID 481 | Differences in elasmobranch density and abundance in the Bay Islands of Honduras – Gabriela Ochoa, Ely Augustinus, Rachel T. Graham, Ivy Baremore

Poster sessions: 17:15 – 19:30

Gabriela Ochoa, Honduras Country Coordinator

Poster 162: Gaby Ochoa – Exhibit Hall (Parahyba)
CHARACTERIZING AN ARTISANAL ELASMOBRANCH FISHERY IN THE REMOTE MISKITO CAYS OF HONDURAS| Gabriela Ochoa, Ely Augustinus, Rachel T. Graham

Poster 163: Zeddy Seymour – Exhibit Hall (Parahyba)
USE OF TRADITIONAL ECOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE TO REVEAL TRENDS IN ARTISANAL AND ELASMOBRANCH FISHERIES IN CABO VERDE| Zeddy T. A. Seymour, Rachel T. Graham, Cintia P. Lima, José Luís Monteiro

 

Megan Chevis, Panama Country Coordinator

Poster 169: Megan Chevis – Exhibit Hall (Parahyba)
ELASMOBRANCH COMMUNITIES ON PANAMA’S CARIBBEAN COAST: FISHERIES-INDEPENDENT MONITORING IN THE BOCAS DEL TORO AND GUNA YALA ARCHIPELAGOS| Megan Chevis, Ana Batista, Leyson Navarro, Rachel T. Graham

 

 

 

 

JUNE 8

09:15: Oral presentation – Auditorium 2 (Cabedelo)

Zé Lois, Cabo Verde Fisher and Field Associate (left), Zeddy Seymour, Cabo Verde Country Coordinator (right), Cintia the tubarão-tigre (middle)

ID 518 | It’s not all about shark fins and fin soup: Sale and consumption of sharks and rays in Honduras during the Lenten season – Rachel Graham, Ely Augustinus, Gabriela Ochoa.

10:00: Oral presentation – Auditorium 3 (Lucena)

ID 482 | Baseline assessment of the coastal elasmobranch fauna of eastern Cabo Verde using baited remote underwater video – Zeddy T. A. Seymour, Rachel T. Graham, Ivy E. Baremore, José Luís Monteiro

16:45: Oral presentation – Auditorium 3 (Lucena)

ID 268 | Distribution of deep-sea sharks in the MesoAmerican Region – Ivy E. Baremore, Ely Augustinus, Francisco Polanco-Vasquez, Rachel T. Graham

MarAlliance Research Associate, Simon Gulak (left)

Miskito Cays, unexplored marine wildlife under threat

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The boat we used for monitoring at one of Miskito Cays’ many islets

The Miskito Cays in the far eastern stretches of Honduras known as La Moskitia, represent one of the last remote marine wildernesses in the Caribbean, and as we recently discovered, a veritable “wild west”of the sea. In search of answers on the status of marine megafauna in the Caribbean’s most difficult to access areas, the MarAlliance team recently conducted an expedition to these remote and sparsely inhabited islands.

Comprised of 49 small coral islands and sandbars spanning an area of 750 square km, the Miskito Cays are located 60km from the coast and are named after the region’s indigenous population, the Miskitos, who are subsistence fishers.

We interviewed Gaby Ochoa, MarAlliance’s Honduras Country Coordinator, about the importance of the region and its marine wildlife.

Why does MarAlliance work in the Miskito Cays?

Sharks are important to the reef’s ecosystem. This photo shows critically endangered elkhorn coral.

Gaby: Since 2016, our research associate Ely Augustinus ran a series of preliminary market and shark fishing surveys with Miskito fishers which all pointed to the fact that shark fishery was taking place in that area. We became very interested in collecting data in this remote area, primarily because no baseline surveys of the marine megafauna, like sharks and rays, had been done before. Previous monitoring by others was not very inclusive, which made the fishers uninterested in participating in any research. Our experience in engaging local fisher communities has helped us to be more sustainable. We have worked closely with indigenous Miskito fishers to ensure they are part of this endeavor. If you want to make an impact, you need to work alongside communities, which is why we started monitoring the life beneath the surface with these key partners on our side.

Can you draw a picture of the current situation of this reef for sharks and rays?

MarAlliance team heading back after a successful monitoring day

Gaby: The reef falls under the permanent shark sanctuary legislation, which protects both the country’s Atlantic and Pacific sharks and entered into force in 2011. Unfortunately, an amendment to this legislation in 2016, stipulates that every shark caught incidentally during fishing can be used for sale. This amendment turned into a loophole, that is becoming increasingly visual in the run up to the country’s religious festivities of the Semana Santa (holy week or Easter week). Shark meat is first salted and then dried to be sold for a popular soup during lent. From January until Easter, we noticed fisheries directly targeting endangered hammerhead sharks and boats returning daily to the fishing camps filled with over 100 sharks each. Moreover, rays do not fall under this regulation.

During the fishing season, the region’s fishermen are all out at sea. Both artisanal and industrial fisheries are active in the area; it is the artisanal fishing that is detrimental to the shark populations who are so important to the marine ecosystem.

What does our work in the area entail?

Deploying a baited remote underwater video

Gaby: We received the go ahead of the Consejo Consultivo of La Mosquitia, a local government agency, to do the first ever fisheries-independent baseline survey in the area. We trained local fishers how to take part in the survey. For this, we deployed 45 baited remote underwater video (BRUV) stations. It will take some time to go over all this footage, determine all the species and pin down the numbers of our first baseline survey, but I am expecting results to come out in July this year. Having watched some of the footage already, my first observation would be that this might be an area for juvenile sharks, and that it might have more shark sightings than other places surveyed in the country so far! However, proper analysis will give us a better picture.

What are the challenges for marine conservation in the Miskito Cays?

Gaby: For conservation to succeed in the area, the shark sanctuary legislation needs to be followed more closely as well as better enforced. More research is needed on which species and how many of them the fishers are actually catching. Lastly, close ongoing cooperation with the local fisher communities, the government and grassroots associations such as the Miskitu Asla Takanka are crucial to achieving success.

What is your wish for the future?

Gaby: The monitoring activities made us aware that there is much more work and research to be done. What we discovered is only the top of the iceberg. Moreover, we made community commitments to work together to better understand the status of shark fisheries and marine health. We would love to keep these commitments by continuing our work in the area.

Meet the MarAlliance Honduras team!

This project is funded by Houston Zoo and Fly Fish Guanaja.

Panama’s Guna Yala local fishers become champions for marine resources management

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Lionfish have 18 venomous spines that are capable of easily penetrating human skin and delivering a painful sting.
Photo: Rachel Graham

We are scared of lionfish, they will kill us if we eat them!” This local fisherman’s testimony was echoed by his fellow fishers during a knowledge exchange workshop with Mexican and Belizean counterparts organized by MarAlliance in Guna Yala.

MarAlliance’s ongoing lionfish and marine megafauna project in Panama’s indigenous Guna Yala region answers a real need from the local community who called on the organization’s marine expertise to help them manage the invasive yet as they soon discovered, very tasty lionfish (Pterois volitans).

The fishers didn’t know how to best deal with lionfish that are originally from the Indo Pacific and were accidentally introduced to the Caribbean over 30 years ago. These fish are detrimental to the region’s ecosystem as they outcompete other species for space and food resources and have no natural predators. This is putting local marine ecosystems already stressed by rising temperatures and pollution under further pressure.

“Fishers from the region wanted to know how to better manage lionfish,” confirmed MarAlliance Panama Country Coordinator Megan Chevis, “By enabling them to do that, they are simultaneously contributing to a better management of all marine resources.”

The project is being rolled out on several islands in the region, including Aglidub, Uwargandup, Nargana and Caimau Islands. It encompasses a three-pronged approach, the first component entails training of local traditional fishers to safely capture lionfish. MarAlliance then added two more components following further community engagement and interest in understanding the health of their seas: an annual standardized monitoring of marine megafauna and  a program of education and awareness through interactive presentations and activities with students.

“As many traditionally consumed fish species have been overfished in the Guna Yala, lionfish fisheries could bolster the comarca’s food security both directly through removal and consumption, and indirectly, by increasing the survival of juveniles of other species of fish” noted Dr. Rachel Graham, Executive Director of MarAlliance.  

“You have to cut off the spines at their base so you get all the venom,” Mexican fisher Henry Mezquita tells to his audience, “then you fillet it like you would any other fish.” Photo: Rachel Graham

MarAlliance’s work in the Guna Yala region aims to empower its community members, encouraging them to see lionfish as a source of food and convincing them that sharks and other big fish are invaluable to the sea’s wellbeing. For this project, Mexican and Belizean fishers joined workshops and exchanged knowledge with their Guna counterparts on how to catch, handle and consume lionfish in order to create demand for this fish. Additionally, the MarAlliance team also trained eight local fishers and captains on monitoring methods during a two-week period.

“An important part of this project is involving and training local fishers,” said Ms Chevis, “Community engagement from the very start helps ensure our projects are sustainable and locally supported. With communities’ requests, we hope we can expand our work to other islands in the region,” she concluded.  

 

MarAlliance runs this project in collaboration with the Centro de Desarrollo Ambiental y Humano (CENDAH) and is supported by the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation, Conservation Food & Health Foundation, and the Ron Magill Conservation Endowment Fund. Permission for the project was granted by the Congreso General Kuna.

 

New shark species discovered!

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New shark species discovered!

Our research on deep sea sharks yielded surprising results, which were published recently in the journal Marine Biodiversity. Collaborating with scientists from the Florida Institute of Technology, Florida State University, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, we found that the bigeye sixgill sharks – previously thought to be one species world-wide – are actually two different species in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. These sharks, which have six gill openings rather than the typical five most sharks have, are among the oldest lineages of sharks, dating back more than 250 million years, and are found exclusively in the deep sea. Although their deep range makes them difficult to study, they are already being negatively impacted by fishing, so this finding is important for the conservation of the species. The new name, the Atlantic sixgill shark, goes along with a new taxonomic designation: Hexanchus vitulus. The findings of this research have been shared widely, with news coverage from outlets like Newsweek, Science Daily, Smithsonian, Atlas Obscura, and others.

See the links below:

Daily Mail

News story from Daily Mail on Tuesday 27 February 2018

Daily Mail,

A terrifying species of shark that dwells in the depths of the ocean has been discovered by researchers.

Markets developed and driven by fishers: a solution for sustainable fisheries?

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Traditional Pohnapeian free-diver and fisher Taylor Paul brings up a Epinephelus fuscoguttatus as part of spawning and spatial ecology research conducted on the species. Photo: Rachel Graham

Small scale fisheries represent a chain with a variable number of links that includes the fish, the fisher and the buyer, often with additional links such as markets, resellers, wholesalers, stores or restaurants and the final consumers. Each link sets up demand that can undermine the sustainability of vulnerable coral reef-associated fisheries. In small communities, a key link in the value chain that drives the demand for fish and provides a centralised location for fishers to sell their fish is the fish market. Often created and run by non-fishers, markets create demand that often supersede the ability of fisheries to yield fish without significant long-term impacts to the fished populations.

A diversity of reef-associated fish species are brought in for sale at road side stalls in Pohnpei. Photo: Rachel Graham

To address this issue in Pohnpei, a coral rimmed island in the Western Pacific’s Federated States of Micronesia, Dr. Kevin Rhodes, MarAlliance’s Coastal Fisheries Coordinator, has been working closely with fishers, market owners and fishing communities to return the coral reef fishery to sustainable levels. An earlier market study in 2006 had already found the fishery to be overharvested, with a reliance on unsustainable nighttime spearfishing, juveniles and spawning aggregations. By 2015, marketed volumes were down nearly 20%, along with catch-per-unit-effort and income. This year, Rhodes is working with Pohnpei’s fisher association, Menin Katengesed, to turn this situation around by helping them open their own market, set their own pricing, and set standards and restrictions around purchases to help eliminate nighttime spearfishing and build much needed coastal fishery economies.

Dr. Kevin Rhodes reveals a cooler full of recently captured grouper in Pohnpei. Photo: Rachel Graham

The project, funded jointly by NOAA Saltensall-Kennedy, the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, Global GreenGrants and the Packard Foundation through the Micronesia Conservation Trust, is working to empower fishers to take control of fisheries management through economic means, while providing the association with a self-financing tool to continue community outreach, support market operations and build on opportunities to reduce overhead and improve profitability of fishing. Currently, the market is supplying at-cost ice and long-storage coolers to fishers as a rent-to-own option that can be purchased in return for supplying sustainable catch. The association also looks to value-add to marketed fish by diversifying products, such as making tuna jerky and smoked fish and using waste to make fish emulsion for local farmers.

The market will also provide an opportunity for MarAlliance’s team to collect fisheries data and examine the life histories of several target species for which nothing is currently known. Once the data is collected and analysed, Rhodes will help the state and the association develop management regulations around identified spawning times and life history parameters. These key data are useful to establish temporal catch bans around reproductive periods and catch size limits, both of which help to eliminate the catch and sale of undersized fish.

If successful, the operation can serve as a blueprint for other area markets and beyond Micronesia’s extensive territories. With these locally-based initiatives, Rhodes can help to steer Pohnpei fisheries back to sustainable levels with fishers at the wheel.

New light shed on little known night sharks

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A night shark immobilized in water by the research boat and awaits measurement, tagging and release. Photo: Simon Gulak

Monitoring large, mobile and little known species requires a lot of work and dedication, and not a small amount of luck. We’ve all had days, and even weeks where we just can’t catch a break (or a shark), despite all factors – good weather, ideal location, great crew – being in our favor. And then there are the days that get us through the rough patches, where everything clicks and we get amazing results.

This past July we had a bit of both types of luck during the deep sea project: two long, hot days during which we caught absolutely nothing, followed by one single day in which we tagged and released nine sharks from three different species. The first two sharks we caught that morning were, ironically, night sharks (Carcharhinus signatus), which although considered primarily deep-dwelling (50-600 m), don’t have a lot of the characteristics we associate with deep-sea sharks, such as huge eyes, water-pumping spiracles on their heads, or light-emitting organs. Rather, they look quite similar to other “sharky sharks,” like the silky shark or even Caribbean reef sharks. In fact, they’re closely related to their shallower cousins, being in the same genus.

The night shark soon to sport tag 411 that would travel from Belize to Cuba over the course of two months. Photo: Thomas Meyer

Until last year, we only had anecdotal evidence that night sharks even occurred in Belize, and most people thought they were brief seasonal visitors to one atoll in the south of the country. But as we learn more about this species we are finding that they likely occur throughout the country, and may be here year-round. We’ve now tagged and released eight night sharks, and have recorded a ninth on one of our deep Baited Remote Underwater Videos (BRUVs). It’s not a huge sample size, but it’s providing some important data for this understudied species.

Tagging highly migratory sharks with conventional tags – those that do not communicate with satellites or receivers – is largely an exercise in futility. After all, many species of sharks can cross ocean basins in just a few weeks, and often tags are not reported by fishers, as many assume they will get in trouble if it is a protected or special species. So we were more than a little surprised to get a message earlier in October that one of our conventional tags had been recovered in Cuba. A quick search for the tag number in our database revealed that it was one of the night sharks we had tagged just two months earlier!

Although we are thrilled to have this information, this exciting finding is tempered by the implications of its capture. While it was reportedly released, this shows that at least 12% of the night sharks we tagged have interacted with fishing gear. Given what we know about low reporting rates, the number of night sharks being captured in the region is likely very high. Night sharks are listed as Vulnerable to Extinction by the IUCN Red List of Species (redlist.org), which is an organization that uses scientific and fishery information to evaluate the global status of species around the world. Once common in Caribbean fisheries, and especially Cuba, night sharks are now considered rare throughout the western Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean. Their Vulnerable status is a result of heavy and unregulated fishing of the species, especially around seamounts off Brazil.

These first records of night sharks in Belize show that this species likely traverses our waters throughout the year, and may even use Glover’s Reef as a mating aggregation. As most Belizean fishers do not target deep water sharks, they are fairly well protected while they are here, but increasing fishing in deep and pelagic waters, and especially in surrounding countries, will continue to threaten this highly migratory species. We don’t know where our night shark went after its presumed release in Cuba- was it to US waters where the species is fully protected, or did it loop to the south where it would encounter heavy fishing activity? How large is its range and how many fisheries is it exposed to as it migrates? These are just some of the questions about this and other vulnerable species we are starting to answer with this project.

Mnine d’Mar: Connecting Children to the Ocean

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Learning to use a Global Positioning Service device and accurately recording field data are some of the many skills that students receive during the Mnine d’Mar course.

It’s dawn when Mohammed wakes up in the Barraca (Portuguese for slum) where he lives in the back of Sal Rei, the capital of Boavista, Cabo Verde. He can just catch sight of the ocean glinting in the morning light beyond the saltpan as he finds a quiet spot on the edge of the slum to do his necessities. Although the small desert island of Boavista is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, most of the people living in the Barraca, where Mohamed lives, rarely get the chance to swim and many only know the animals living there when they are served up on a plate.

The arid climate in Boavista means people are dependent on the surrounding ocean for food, and living costs are high, as nearly everything else has to be imported. Additionally, house prices are inflated by the surging tourism industry, meaning many families cannot afford to rent. As a result, although there are only 15,000 people on the island, barracas (slums, lit.huts’) comprise nearly half the population.

For many of people living in the Barraca the choice is simple – either work in the hotels or become a fisher. As growing tourism, drives further population growth from continental Africa, the sea is inevitably coming under greater pressure. And sharks, which are still viewed by many as the monsters perpetuated by Hollywood, are some of the first species to disappear. There is empathy driven by misperception. The irony is, it’s these maligned predatory species, which maintain fish and even ecosystem health and, losing them is likely to impact the small-scale fisheries on which these people depend.

It is in this context that we began our Mnine d’ Mar educational project, to strengthen the connection between local children and the ocean with a focus on sharks and rays. The program has provided us with great opportunity to raise awareness and breakdown common misperceptions at an early age. In doing so we hope to build a generation that values sharks and rays for their role in the marine environment and who can benefit directly from their survival.

The program runs across three days, developing from a classroom environment, to experiential in-situ learning and ultimately culminating with practical sessions at sea. The first day sets the scene, using a combination of theoretical, interactive and practical learning; we encourage participation and try to steer towards group discussions, games and interactive activities.

The Mnine d’ Mar starts off in the classroom and transitions to the coast and then the sea.

On the second day, in the shadow of an acacia on the beach, we discuss perceptions, environmental issues and marine conservation putting it in a local context. On the third day, we take the kids to sea to conduct scientific monitoring in the bay next to the city, using UVS (underwater visual census) snorkeling and BRUVs (baited remote underwater videos). On the one hand, it is a chance for the kids to explore the marine realm with their own eyes, something many on the island rarely, if at all, get the chance to do. On the other, it allows them to get to ‘know’ their local species and establish a connection something essential if empathy is to be surpassed and conservation is to be successful.

Cintia Lima orients the students on the beach of Boavista during one of the Mnine d’Mar training exercises

The Menin’ de Mar Class of 2017 at the ready for the marine component of their course led by Cintia Lima (in blue)

Time to apply all the classroom based learning to the work on the sea monitoring fish for species diversity and abundance.

Mohammed grins while watching himself swim underwater along with family members as part of the follow through post marine training in the Mnine d’ Mar program

By providing knowledge and first hand experience we hope to captivate an interest in marine ecology and encourage thinking about conservation and sustainable management of marine resources, something extremely pertinent in Boavista, where the Sahara meets the sea. We envisage a future where big fish and sharks thrive and in which people like Mohammed benefit from their conservation, if not directly then at least from the knowledge that this wildlife exists and helps keep the oceans healthier. By raising awareness and cultivating skills for science at an early age we hope to build the foundation and a professional demand for marine science and conservation in Cabo Verde and create a generation connected to the sea that surrounds them and the sharks and rays that live there.

Kevin dos Santos (aka the future of sharks in Boavista) learning some cool shark and ray facts.

“How old are you?” is not a straightforward question for sharks

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When we are asked the question “How old are you?” we can usually answer with a degree of accuracy. Things are somewhat more complicated for fish and very much more for sharks – and not just because they can’t literally tell us how old they are.

The ageing of fish is believed to originate from speculations made by the scientist Aristotle in 340 B.C. He noted, in the Historica Animalium, that fish age may be determined by examination of the size and hardness of fish scales. However, it was not until the invention of the lenses and the microscope in 1650s, that scientists were able to identify growths rings in the scales that were similar to those found in trees. By 1924, these rings, known as annuli, were found in otoliths (ear bones), vertebrae, fin rays, and other hard structures. It was also noted that there were variations in the amount of growth over the year with the majority of growth occurring during the summer months.

Sharks and their relatives, rays and chimeras, do not have a bony skeleton. Their skeleton is made of cartilage which is lighter and more flexible. Their otoliths, or staticonia, are similar in size to sand grains and their scales (known as dermal denticles) do not grow continuously. Some species have hard spines that contain rings suitable for ageing, but this is not the case for many elasmobranchs. Vertebrae are used to age the species without spines and this is only possible after the animal is dead.

A thin section of shark vertebrae under the microscope showing the banding pattern (NOAA Fisheries)

Today ageing fish and shark species is a vital part of fisheries management. Ages are important data that are used for assessing the health of a population of a species (also known as a stock). The age of maturity and growth rates may tell us how vulnerable a species is to being over harvested.

Before we can confidently use age estimates for a species, the rate of growth ring deposition must be validated. This is frequently achieved by injection of fluorescent dyes (e.g. oxytetracycline, calcein) into a tagged animal prior to release. The dye incorporates into the age structures so that when the animal is recaptured, the point in time when the animal was tagged will be visible. Thus the amount of growth deposited since the tagging event can be confirmed.

Another method of age validation uses the levels of the radio-isotope of carbon known as  C14 in the growth zones of the vertebrae to match it against references with known timelines such as  coral reef cores. This isotope is a direct result of nuclear testing during the 1950s and has hence earned the title “bomb carbon dating”. However, a recent review of both these methods has suggested that the underestimation of shark ages may be more widespread than previously thought. Growth bands on aged structures may actually only be reliable during the early years of life. This new evidence will be important to future ageing studies and the resultant impact to the life history and conservation status of sharks and rays.

Rock saw used to section otoliths and vertebrae

Thanks to the ongoing collaboration with Sea Leucas, a small start-up in the field of fish ageing, MarAlliance now has ready access to two age/production saws for taking sections of shark vertebrae and fish spines and otoliths. We have begun to process our collections and look forward to working with other researchers along the MesoAmerican Reef to age their animals.

 

Contrasting artisanal fishing communities in the Azuero Peninsula, Panama

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Roxane Borruat taking length measurements of the fish landed at the port of Boca Parita, Azuero Peninsula, Panamá. Photo: EM Valderramos Piminchumo/MarAlliance

High fishing effort coupled with unsustainable use and destructive practices such as nets, has resulted in the loss of marine biodiversity and in the deterioration of marine ecosystem services since the middle of the 20th century. One of the most important of these services is the provision of food, which implies that the loss of biodiversity and the decline of marine populations engendered by unsustainable fishing practices have the potential to also affect food security. Assessing the impact of net fisheries has been challenging in many countries due to a lack of control sites where more sustainable practice such as hook and line are used.

Panamanian artisanal fisheries, including those of the Azuero Peninsula, follow the same global trends and yet also suffer from a lack of information which hinders adequate management. The Government of Panama’s Department for sustainable fisheries (ARAP), recently urged the need for improved scientific knowledge on the country’s small-scale fisheries which tied in well with our expertise. We were also keen to work with fishers from two communities located on Panama’s Azuero Peninsula who use different fishing gears to assess catch size and composition and highlight any differences due to gear preference.

Major findings

Some of the most important species for the studied artisanal fisheries include slow growing and long-lived species, such as snappers and groupers. Such characteristics make these species especially vulnerable to fishing pressure. The majority of species that were landed at both ports were assessed by the IUCN as of least-concern in relation to risk of extinction, although it was unknown for most of them whether their population is increasing, stable, or actually decreasing.

Based on conservation status, economic value, and the amount of data collected, 8 focal species were chosen for further analysis. The landings of 7 out of these 8 species were biased towards smaller individuals. In some cases, the great majority of the specimens that were sampled were below the size of sexual maturity. Therefore, specimens may be commonly caught while still immature. Alternatively, these populations may have suffered from miniaturization due to fishing pressure, meaning that their specimens mature earlier (at smaller sizes) and their maximum size is smaller than normal, as a consequence of the selective removal by fishing activities of bigger fish from the population. The most worrisome result concerned landings of the endangered scalloped hammerhead shark (S. lewini), for which newborn specimens were prevalently landed. In other words, scalloped hammerhead sharks are commonly caught before they have reached sexual maturity and hence before they could reproduce. There is also a portion of the fishery specifically targeting adult scalloped hammerheads, of which the fins are worth more than the meat and are sold separately.

The landing site of the artisanal port of El Arenal, Azuero Peninsula. Photo: R. Borruat/MarAlliance

Juvenile blacktip sharks landed at the port of Boca Parita, Azuero Peninsula, Panamá. Photo: R. Borruat/MarAlliance

Sharks and rays: Our gateway to tackling urgent marine issues

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Tino the tiger shark delights the crowds in Boavista, Cabo Verde.
Photo: MarAlliance

 

Engaging students and the public about sharks and rays, and the need for greater understanding and conservation measures, has created an unexpected space and platform with schools and the public to talk about other urgent issues impacting the sea, notably plastic pollution. Like many island nations, Cabo Verde has a problem with waste disposal. Being a group of small windswept islands, a large amount of waste – especially plastics, inevitably enters the sea. This long-lasting rubbish impacts marine species and their habitats, and increasingly ends up back on our plates inside fish. It is estimated about 1/4 of caught fish have ingested plastics, though it is not yet known what effect this might have on us.

A recent study estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. While this is disturbing on many levels, it is especially concerning because plastic and other synthetic materials contain persistent pollutants, some of which can mimic and disrupt biological hormones and can take hundreds of year to decompose. During the time plastics are at sea, they are often mistakenly eaten, and can accumulate at potentially harmful levels in fish. And it’s not just bony fish who are feeling the effects, but seabirds, marine mammals and even sharks fall victim to ingestion and entanglement of our waste and discarded fishing gear.

Although plastic pollution is being increasingly studied, for many the problem remains out of sight and out of mind. Because we appreciate a challenge, in May we decided to integrate this new threat into our education and outreach program in Cabo Verde. We spent the month running an educational campaign on the impact of rubbish on marine fauna. By visiting schools, running interactive workshops with students, taking part in radio shows and holding outreach events, we are raising awareness to ensure that this broad threat to the marine environment remains highly visible and that we help to identify solutions to minimize waste and pollution.

 

Cintia Lima shares the pitfalls of plastic pollution in the sea. Photo: Zeddy Seymour/MarAlliance

 

Combating plastics pollution also has a powerful ally in our new team member, our friendly mascot, Tino the tiger shark. In the wild, tiger shark numbers have fallen significantly in the last 50 years as a result of overfishing. We also know that tiger sharks are fairly omnivorous and have been found with all sorts of plastic and metal rubbish in their stomachs. Tiger sharks are often stigmatized and viewed as a senseless monster. By promoting scientific fact instead of fiction and putting a great face to conservation, including plastic pollution, we are dismantling myths and changing perceptions at an early age, with the goal of cultivating pride for this iconic and critical species and encouraging strong connections to the sea.

A shark is not always shark in Panama…

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People are remarkably fascinated by sharks. Whether they evoke fear, love, or pure curiosity, it is usually not very difficult to get people excited about sharks, especially kids. This has been clearly evident during our education and outreach events in Panama this year. Since the beginning of the year we’ve been able to engage the public with an educational booth at two large fairs, as well as talk to over 800 students and teachers from primary schools in Panama City. Besides teaching people about the incredible diversity of sharks and rays and sparking their curiosity about shark biology and anatomy, we also share the reality of unsustainable fisheries and what is happening to many of Panama’s sharks. And they are devastated.

To meet the demand for more highly-prized fishes whose populations have drastically decreased in the last few years, it is not difficult to now find shark meat sold in fish markets and even supermarkets across the country. Ambiguously labeled as ‘cazón’, ‘corvinata’, ‘tollo’, or simply ‘pescado’ (fish) instead of ‘tiburón’ (shark), most of the public in Panama have no idea that the fish they are eating is actually shark meat. Hammerhead sharks are being hit particularly hard, as gillnets are used to catch large quantities of juveniles at coastal nursery sites along Panama’s Pacific coast. At the height of the reproductive season, when hammerheads migrate to Panama to give birth, a single boat may catch hundreds of newly born sharks in a day.

 

Trunks of juvenile hammerhead sharks caught in artisanal gillnet fisheries on Panama’s Pacific coast. Photo by Megan Chevis.

 

But what we’ve learned from our interactions with kids and the public at large in the last few months in Panama is that, once they know about sharks and their plight, people generally don’t want to eat them. Few of them know that there are hundreds of different species of sharks and rays inhabiting a variety of marine habitats around the world. Or that not every shark is a ‘white shark’ that wants to eat humans. Even fewer know that the meat from sharks and other large marine predators contains high levels of toxic methyl-mercury, or that it can take a hammerhead 10-15 years to reach reproductive age. Through these interactions we hope to not only change people’s perceptions of sharks (and inspire the next generation of marine biologists, divers, and ocean lovers), but arm them with knowledge so that they can make more informed decisions about what they consume that will ultimately make long-term positive changes for sharks.

 

Students marvel at a shark’s jaw as they learn about shark evolution and diets. Photo: Megan Chevis/MarAlliance

Zooming into the things that define the big animals

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The wonders of the small world or a new view through a microscope. Photo: Rachel Graham/MarAlliance

 

Sometimes it’s not just the big things that inspire awe, it’s the little things too. The really small, microscopic things. When we educate students about fish, notably sharks and rays, we tend to talk about the whole animals, their diet, behavior, form and function. And yet to demonstrate the phenomenal diversity of each species, we are turning to microscopes to reveal a new world that generally remains out of sight and mind for most.

We recently began to use microscopes to expand our education program and relate the fine structure of skin, muscle, teeth, and more to how sharks and rays have evolved, how they eat, move and combat predation, all of which has inspired students learn about the biology and building elements of each species. Our original kids’ style microscopes made such a huge impression on students and adults at the Belize Punta Gorda outreach event that we were convinced to expand the program further. We happened to be looking for funding to purchase more units and integrate them into all of our country based educational programs when the Houston Zoo stepped in and coincidentally said “Wait, we have just what you need! Would you like some microscopes?”

 

MarAlliance’s Rachel Graham is marvelling at the generous microscope donation by the Houston Zoo’s Director of Education, Melanie Sorensen.

 

Our wonderful donation of eight high quality microscopes to MarAlliance is now enabling us to expand our educational programs in Belize, Honduras, Panama and Cabo Verde. We can’t wait to amaze and inspire more generations with science and beauty of the minute.

Monitoring a large shark aggregation that feeds wildlife tourism

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Curious nurse sharks and southern stingrays dance with a snorkeler at Shark Ray Alley. Photo: Rachel Graham/MarAlliance

 

Tourism focused on encounters with sharks and rays has increased dramatically worldwide as people increasingly seek out the animals they once feared, and are keen to experience the thrill of meeting large marine wildlife up close. Successful wildlife tourism is predicated on predictability, and one way of increasing the possibility that visitors will encounter sharks and rays is by feeding the animals. This practice, also known as provisioning, has polarized biologists, who fear that feeding modifies natural behavior and also creates expectations where animals see people and expect food. There are studies that support all of these aspects, yet in countries where sharks and rays are killed, the positives of provisioning generally outweigh the negatives. Provisioning sites can help people to encounter animals that are otherwise feared and provides high non-consumptive value for sharks and rays through tourism.

The lack of information about many provisioned aggregations of sharks and rays worldwide extends to one of the longest-known provisioned sites: Shark and Ray Alley in Belize’s Hol Chan Marine Reserve.  With visitors to the marine reserve and its sharks and rays topping 75,000 people a year, the need to assess the size, demography, recruitment and diversity of species of the aggregation became the focus for our long term monitoring study. The methods are simple, consisting of weekly video and photo surveys of the individual nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum) and rays to determine whether feeding activity has affected the behaviors and habitat use of the animals at Shark Ray Alley.

Our research at Shark Ray Alley consists of individuals gathering size estimates and sexes of the sharks and rays. We also gather population counts and photo identification of the animals on site. To gather such information, we travel to Shark Ray Alley once a week with either a tour operator during their scheduled time if space is available, or with a Hol Chan Marine Reserve ranger. Upon arrival we make an initial count from the boat of the number of sharks, rays, and turtles  present. We also gather and record environmental conditions and a number of other factors including the number of guests, whether chum is used, type of chum used, and the number of other tour boats in the area. Most often we have two surveyors; one recording data and taking in water photos of individual dorsal fins, and the other using a size estimation tool with a GoPro attached recording underwater video of the animals. Here we continue the survey until the tour ends, or all of the animals vacate the area.

 

The most responsible tour operators use a chum tube stuffed with sardines and lowered to the seabed, to attract sharks and rays to their boat. Photo: Rachel Graham/MarAlliance

 

By gathering such information, we will be able to estimate average numbers of each species from the boat and in-water, average sizes, and proportions of males versus females, along with ecotourism data including average number of boats, how many tour boats feed/chum and how tour operators and tourists interact with the animals, and whether they are touching or handling the animals (which unfortunately several do).

Initial trials with a colleague’s drone highlights this as an efficient method of monitoring the provisioned aggregation from the sky. So our next step involves the purchase of a drone that will enable replicable aerial surveys to reveal abundance of animals and boats, animal behavior in relation to boats and will allow us to have a much more complete picture of the aggregation. We at MarAlliance have our very first GoFundMe campaign underway to make aerial monitoring a reality and a weekly occurrence with our surveyors. If you are keen to support our Eyes in the Sky project please visit our campaign at: https://funds.gofundme.com/dashboard/eyes-in-the-sky-to-monitor-sharks. Any size donation is most welcome.

It is clear that wherever shark and ray aggregations occur, either provisioned or natural, the sites are becoming tourism attractions. With good site management and shark and ray encounter etiquette applied by guides and rangers, such as no touching or chasing the animals, no hand feeding (use a feed tube or like), and briefing guests fully on the experience and protocol prior to entering the water, these predictable aggregations can transform a fear of sharks by many into appreciation, respect and stewardship for these magnificent creatures. And this is why we would much prefer a shark to be fed than dead.

 

A friendly Southern stingray checks out the photographer front as we take measurements to check on growth over time. Photos: Rachel Graham/MarAlliance