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Did Covid give sharks a break?

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Over the past year, the internet was awash with stories of wildlife moving into urban areas and reoccupying sites where they had rarely or ever been seen previously. This led us to wonder whether marine wildlife in our study countries had caught a similar break from humans due to our Covid-mediated restrictions on travel and gatherings. In many tropical countries, coastal fishing was curtailed for several months as governments grappled with the uncertainties of contagion and the virus’ lethality, doing their best to balance restrictions while avoiding food insecurity and economic collapse. 

During a period that mostly stretched from mid-March to early June 2020, traditional fishers were not allowed to go to sea in several countries where we work, such as Cabo Verde, Honduras, Belize and Panama. In many cases they were also not provided with any alternatives to feed their families or pay their rent and bills. Although a relative drop in the bucket of need, thanks to many supporters, we were able to support 22 fishing families for up to 5 months during the most challenging period, but as there were thousands of fishers across these sites, another set of questions begged: how have sharks and other fish fared following a short absence of fishing pressures? Would we be able to discern a Covid respite effect on any of the long-lived species that we study? Are marine protected areas proving effective for the protection of large marine wildlife as determined by our long term study on the differences in abundance, diversity and distribution between protected and unprotected areas?

To answer these questions, we are once again setting about to monitor the status of sharks and rays and other large marine wildlife with our traditional fisher partners. Between April and June our team will be at work across multiple sites along the MesoAmerican Reef (which encompasses the countries of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras) and in September in Panama, using our standardized tripartite methodology of underwater visual census transects, underwater videos, and scientific capture of sharks. Although we couldn’t travel to the field in 2020, we are fortunate we can count on a baseline dataset from previous years and added to in 2019 (the last time we were able to undertake monitoring), to which we can compare and quantify changes in animal numbers and distribution across sites. 

One of the key sites we are studying closely is the Turneffe Atoll in Belize. Situated 32 km from Belize city, the atoll spans 1,317 km2 of coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass meadows and cayes. Declared a marine protected area (MPA) in 2012, the atoll is co-managed by the Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association and the Belize Fisheries Department. Management and enforcement started in 2014, bringing about an atoll-wide ban on the use of nets and longlines similar to that enforced in other MPAs in Belize. 

That same year, we were able to create a baseline for marine megafauna that has since served as a comparison and indicator of change for the subsequent years of monitoring. Our hope is that management of the fishing around the atoll will help the populations of threatened species found in the MPA, such as the scalloped hammerhead and hawksbill turtle, rebound over time. As we return to Turneffe this month, we hope to see positive changes in the number of stingrays, nurse sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, and other iconic species that are commonly sighted along other Belizean reefs.

We are trying to educate stakeholders on setting expectations for MPA effectiveness as one must consider the life history of the species that the MPA is expected to protect. Because many of the species we work with are long lived (30+ years for species of groupers and even snappers, longer for sharks and turtles), reach maturity at a late age (over 5 years for certain groupers and snappers, 15 years for nurse sharks), and bear relatively few young that survive to adulthood, long term monitoring needs to be conducted over decades to identify an MPA effect with rebounding populations. 

As MPAs are now considered by most scientists as an essential tool for marine habitats and wildlife management and conservation, considerable work will be needed to boost MPA management and effectiveness at most established sites, ensure the continuity of standardized and locally-led monitoring, and establish long term financing measures that are resilient to external shocks such as Covid. Our localized approach to monitoring and building local capacities, especially in the age of Covid, is paying dividends in this sector, as work can continue and further provide traditional fishers with an alternative source of income to fishing. This is especially important with the globally set goal of protecting 30% of the seas by 2030 was set by the IUCN at the World Conservation Congress in 2016. As of 2020 only 5% of the world’s oceans was under true MPA management per the Marine Conservation Institute’s conservative estimates. 

There is clearly much work to do to attain management and coverage goals, and we look forward to contributing our highly replicable and locally mediated monitoring efforts as a key part of the MPA puzzle and to assessing if indeed Covid gave sharks a break with greater survival recorded throughout our monitoring sites. And we are grateful to contribute to this effort this year in multiple locations thanks to the support of our fabulous individual donors, the MAR Fund, the Oak Foundation, the Whitley Fund for Nature, the Wildlife Conservation Network and the Pew Marine Fellowship

Catalyzing sustainable tourism in Panama’s Guna Yala Comarca

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This past year will go down in history for the pandemic’s potent impact on people, travel and economies. Tourism, one of the most affected economic sectors due to widely enacted travel restrictions, saw an 87% drop in arrivals globally between January 2020 and 2021. The sector’s income was reduced by 74.1% in countries such as Panama, disproportionately impacting remote sites such as the autonomous indigenous Guna Yala region.

 Tourism is an important source of revenue for Guna communities in the Narganá region, which hosts the country’s healthiest coral reefs, fringing uninhabited islands with paradisiacal white sandy beaches. Youth often find work opportunities as boat assistants or tour guides, fishers sell their catch to local restaurants and tour groups, and women artisans sell their handmade molas and winis as souvenirs to tourists.

The pandemic hit the Guna communities directly through the comparatively high number of COVID-19 cases and limited access to health care, but also due to limited import of goods and the loss of tourism income. Yet, after closing its borders to tourism for over a year, Guna Yala is once again preparing to receive visitors to enjoy its Caribbean beaches and culture. 

While the pandemic has certainly brought many difficulties, the curtailment of tourism has meanwhile provided the region with an opportunity to improve tourism practices and sustainability. Marine tourism has incredible potential as a sustainable economic alternative to extractive activities such as fishing, and can be an important impetus for conserving habitats and biodiversity. However, if not properly managed, tourism activities too can have severe and long-lasting detrimental effects on these already fragile ecosystems, especially when thousands of visitors may visit these sites each month.

Tourists are often unaware of the damage they create standing on or grabbing corals, taking animals (such as sea stars) out of the water for photo opportunities, consuming or buying threatened species, and not properly disposing of their trash. To guide visitors towards mitigating their impacts, local tour guides can become the caretakers of these critical sites by educating and instructing visitors and calling out any destructive behavior. Unfortunately, tour guides themselves are often also unaware of their impacts. 

To better prepare guides for the new arrival of visitors to the Comarca and build the foundation for more sustainable tourism to the islands, our team of Guna biologists and educators, in collaboration with the General Guna Congress, is running a series of tourism training workshops with local tour guides. Arcadio Castillo, MarAlliance’s Community Officer, considers these informal workshops to be “of the utmost importance, since they are a way to transfer knowledge and so that people become aware of and sensitized to protect and conserve the sea and its resources, which offer us their services for free.” Participants in these interactive workshops are taught about basic marine biology, fundamentals of conservation, and best practices for themes important to the Comarca, which include coral reefs and mangroves, marine turtles, lobster and finfish fisheries, invasive lionfish, marine predators, and the proper disposal of solid waste. 

Participants so far have shared that the workshops have been incredibly valuable and suggest expanding them to include other groups of participants: “These workshops should be directed at guides but also boat captains and assistants who take tourists to the sea, since many tourists like to take out sea stars and other organisms from their habitats to take pictures with them, and equally many tourists step on and break the corals when they are snorkeling”, says Karin Valdes, a local guide and workshop participant. 

These workshops are funded through the Mola mask sales that so many supporters of MarAlliance purchased over the past 9 months. Thanks to continued mask sales, we look forward to continuing these activities with local leaders and communities, and adding our ‘grain of sand’ to support the Comarca’s autonomous efforts to strengthen the conservation of their marine resources.

Should we stop eating fish?

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The documentary Seaspiracy unfurled onto Netflix in March and has the internet awash with  discussion on the unhappy state of our oceans. The resulting discussion buzz, in a world with limited attention spans and informational overload, is a much needed positive outcome from this documentary. Our burgeoning populations are leading to increased demand for animal protein that is contributing significantly to climate change, impoverishment of land, pollution and loss of wild species. Alarmingly, people consumed a per capita 20.5 kg of fish annually in 2020 (up from 9.9 kg in the 1960s) according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. There is no way to sugar coat it: our oceans and its wildlife are in deep trouble. The many people who have contacted us to exclaim their dismay at the state of our seas further confirms the need for far greater awareness, and actions are needed to reverse the dramatic declines recorded across many marine species, habitats and fisheries. 

However, you know a “but” is coming. 

As an organization that works with threatened marine wildlife and small-scale fishers in tropical developing countries, we are far from absolutists. We found the documentary presented a singular, blinkered, and simplistic perspective on fisheries, lumping all types and sizes of fisheries together, lacking in representation of coastal fishing communities and their needs, and what is a vastly more complex global framework. The film’s suggestion to stop all consumption of fish and marine species is “simply” not realistic for the majority of the estimated 3.2 billion people that truly rely on marine protein for their sustenance, and so it is not something that we do, or want to, promote. Fish are essential to coastal food security in so many sea-facing countries, and if fisheries are better managed, captures can become sustainable for generations to come. 

A natural question we get often asked is: how do you reconcile small scale fisheries with the mission to save sharks and rays? The answer is that it’s challenging: we are working in a shifting “sweet spot” to improve the status of threatened sharks and rays through a range of mostly locally mediated interventions, while working with small-scale fishers and fisheries to improve sustainability. Sustainable fisheries can exist and thrive with, amongst others, strong government will, forged by a need to visualize long term food security. Ending subsidies to the sector, correct pricing of fish to reflect their scarcity, and the creation of social support programs to help diversify income streams for the most disadvantaged (who so readily turn to fishing when other economic alternatives do not exist) are all powerful tools in the struggle for better fisheries. Many of the challenges that we face in wildlife conservation and in improving fishery sustainability are similar, and the measures we take to help sharks and rays to thrive (like area or time closures, banning of certain fishing gear, and MPAs) are often the same we need to ensure the long-term survival of fisheries.

So you might ask: what can I do to better educate myself, my family, and friends? Watch the documentary, but perhaps do so after reading the excellent thought piece on Seaspiracy penned by Dr. Daniel Pauly, one of the world’s best known fisheries scientists, who helps to fact-check and highlights priorities to tackle to reach healthier seas. Also take a moment to watch the documentary End of the Line, which adroitly tackles the complexities of fisheries and the state of fish populations. Begin to look at fish differently: we regularly forget these are often exceptionally long lived, late maturing animals (as many studies looking at the age and growth of groupers, snappers, sharks have demonstrated) and hence cannot be “harvested” like a plant crop (and this is exactly the wording used and approach large-scale fisheries are taking). Become a wiser consumer and abstain from eating threatened and highly predatory fish to focus on more rapidly reproducing fish lower on the food chain, such as small snappers and tilapia. For most species and countries, one can easily find online resources to help guide us in making better informed choices about the seafood we consume; the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is a helpful starting point for consumers living in North America. 

Fish conservation and fisheries management is complex. We recognize our limitations and know that no singular or simple solution will solve the many faceted aspects of fish and fisheries declines. Yet we can all do our part to reduce pressures on fish and fisheries and we recommend that those who can and have alternatives, become savvier consumers and reduce their consumption of animal protein across the board, including fish.

Great things come in Sevens

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April is one of our favorite months! Northern Spring is in full swing, which coincides with a drier climate in the tropics. The seas increasingly lay down and warm up, heralding amorous activity in the world of snappers and a precursor to the birth of sharks and rays. But for us, April holds a special place in our hearts because it’s when we really get stuck into our long-term monitoring field work on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef AND because it’s also the month when we celebrate our birthday. In fact April 2021 see us celebrating our 7th anniversary, and we truly believe that great things come in sevens. 

Aside from the fact that the number 7 has great spiritual and religious meaning, and that it happens to coincide with the days of the week, the number of continents, and TE Lawrence’s Pillars of Wisdom, for us it coincides with the number of countries where we have had the privilege to work, our main projects, and the knowledge that as an organization, we have grown, become wiser through lessons learned and survived the challenges that befell so many in 2020. We have all made it through to this point. So, we have cause to celebrate.

For the last seven years we have improved local and national understanding and conservation of threatened marine species and their habitats across several sites and countries, with a focus on sharks and rays in the MesoAmerican Reef (MAR).  We have done so by filling critical knowledge gaps needed for management and decision-making, engaging and training fishers and future leaders in science to ensure locally installed capacities as opposed to conducting “colonial” or “parachuting” science, inspiring youth and the public to think differently about sharks, become stewards of marine wildlife and more savvy consumers. Ultimately, we have seen our work have impact and support decision-making: we have supported changes in the use of fishing gears to reduce threats to fish and fisheries, informed impact assessments, marine protected areas expansion and creation. We have brought attention to illegal transboundary trade and revealed the inherent vulnerabilities of threatened species such as hammerheads under high levels of exploitation. We look forward to unpacking many of these stories over the coming months and sharing with you the many facets of our shark research and conservation, from disappointments and lessons learnt, to the needle wavering to the right into victories that make our hearts sing and drive us forward.

So, what’s in store for us in 2021? We hope a relatively unfettered return to travel and field work where possible and safely conducted, and hopefully meetings with community partners, colleagues, and the public. We have much catching up to do. In April, we begin the large-scale monitoring of large marine wildlife in the Bay Islands of Honduras, as well as throughout Turneffe Atoll in Belize. These monitoring efforts will enable us to compare population abundance, diversity and distribution of sharks, rays, turtles and finfish across years and especially following the pandemic fishery closures and to help assess the effectiveness of Honduras’ Bay Islands Marine Reserve and the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve in the protection of key species from fishing. 

MarAlliance would never have graduated from a baby’s crawl to our current feisty youngster’s gallop and accomplished any of our work nor managed through the pandemic without you, our committed partners and generous donors. Many of you have been with us from the start and have encouraged us mightily and even helped to guide our steps. For this, we thank you heartily and hope that you and all of our new allies for marine wildlife join us in the conservation journey this and future years.

Dr. Rachel Graham awarded Pew Fellowship in marine conservation

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With the increasing relaxation of Covid-19 linked restrictions to travel and field work in February 2021, MarAlliance has finally been able to hit the ground running, and begin to make up for a year of lost field and community work. It was therefore welcome news to hear that our Executive Director Dr. Rachel Graham has been awarded a prestigious Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation that will further catalyze our field based research and conservation work.  

As one of nine international conservation researchers awarded the fellowship this year, Graham will work to develop information essential to both maintain shark populations and catalyze stronger participation of coastal fishing communities in shark research and conservation in Panama.  

The Pew Fellowship will help Graham collect and analyze ecological and fisheries data with communities to help pinpoint key habitats and other factors that sustain shark and ray populations in key sites in Panama, such as the Coiba National Park and World Heritage Site, and focus on wildlife species that include the critically endangered scalloped hammerhead shark. Findings will contribute to developing solutions that help shift fishing effort away from critical nursery and foraging habitats and improve the survivorship of sharks and rays. Concurrently Graham will be seeking means of strengthening the resiliency of small-scale fisheries and fishing communities to external shocks such as Covid-19 and climate change impacts. We look forward to keeping you informed with fellowship updates through the newsletters and social media.

Wildlife Conservation Network Spring Expo

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Celebrate this 7th birthday with us and join our team on the 24th of April in the virtual Wildlife Conservation Network Spring Expo. We will tell you the story of the largest fish you’ve never seen. Curious?… Want to know more? Then be sure to join us at the Expo for the big reveal. 

And no, this time it’s not about whale sharks (sorry to those whale shark lovers out there). This is such a great opportunity to glean firsthand insights on wildlife and their conservation and engage directly with the conservationists. Come and hang out at our virtual booth to meet a host of MarAlliance’s team members, make sure you bring a celebratory beverage, and find out more about both sharks and our ongoing projects. We look forward to seeing you at the Expo! 

Making a Net Difference to Sharks and Rays

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Scalloped hammerhead caught in a fishing net. Photo: Brian Skerry

Traditional fishers in Belize were the first to see the losses in Belize’s fish and coastal wildlife that followed the introduction of unselective monofilament gillnets last century. “I haven’t seen a sawfish since the 90s, nets killed them off” shared Dan Castellanos, traditional fisher and former shark and net fisherman turned guide in Belize. Nets have been responsible for significant reductions in the abundance and diversity of sharks (of great importance for ecotourism), continued threats to protected species such as turtles and manatees, and the loss of fishes of significant non-consumptive economic value to recreational sea anglers. For 20 years, over 2,300 of the country’s 2,500 registered fishers had unsuccessfully supported a range of local efforts to prohibit the use of gillnets in Belize. The first national ban of fishing nets was eventually gazetted on November 6th 2020, after all key sectors had joined together to call for government action. Possession and use of nets are now no longer permitted throughout the waters of Belize. Until the ban, net fishers had to register their nets with the Department of Fisheries, and meet a range of criteria to remain legal. Enforcement had been challenging due to the broad nature of these criteria, and the cryptic nature of net setting, which mostly occurred at night.

The benefits of banning fishing nets will extend far beyond the reduction in fishing effort and conservation of sharks and other threatened species, and further include:

  • Restoration of depleted fisheries
  • Promotion of fair and equitable fishing
  • Support for alternative livelihoods
  • Boosting tourism, through the survival of species with great tourism value (e.g. sharks)
  • Increasing effectiveness of protected areas
  • Improved protection of already protected species that were being captured in nets
  • Protection of fragile habitats
  • Reduction of plastic pollution and ghost fishing from discarded nets
  • Simplification of enforcement, and ability to include the public in vigilance
  • Improved fisheries management
  • Increased food security

The recipe for Belize’s net ban is highly replicable to other countries. It relied upon the formation of a cross-sector “Coalition for Sustainable Fisheries” that included fisher representation (Belize Fishermen Federation and the Belize Game Fish Association), the scientific and conservation sector (MarAlliance), the tourism sector (Belize Tourism Industry Association, Turneffe Atoll Trust, Yellow Dog Fishing and Conservation), and the advocacy NGO Oceana Belize, underpinned by extensive consultations with net fishers and tourism guides. The Coalition also undertook major fundraising to support fishers with their transition to economic alternatives and net buy-back. These efforts helped to generate support at Ministerial level within the government. Setting a precedent is often the hardest part of creating a movement that includes letting go of unsustainable practices. The Belize net ban represents a much-needed precedent to help other nations shift fisheries away from the use of nets, and enable the restoration of their fish, fisheries and food security.


Fishers pulling in a highly unselective fishing net at Lighthouse Reef Atoll, Belize. Photo: Shane Young.

Jackson Wild Summit

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MarAlliance was fortunate to take part in the Jackson Wild Summit, a convening of scientists, conservationists, story tellers and filmmakers held at the foothills of Wyoming’s Teton mountains.

We were amazed and greatly inspired by the incredible work underway by all sectors who are moving the needle to raise awareness, inspire the public and reverse declines in wildlife.

Founder Dr. Rachel Graham took part in a panel on Species on the Brink, an NSF science round table and scientists pitching stories to filmmakers. We are grateful to the team at Jackson Wild, The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) for enabling Dr. Graham to participate and learn so much from peers, reconnect with colleagues and friends of long-standing.

She is already applying what she learnt to our collective work of shark science and conservation and cannot wait to see some of the pitched documentaries become reality.

Fisheries assessment of the Guna Yala reveals possible strategies for restoring fish populations

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Community based conservation is all about relationships and flexibility. And trust and connections take years to build. We have blazed into a 3rd year of working with fishers, students, and communities in the autonomous indigenous Guna Yala Comarca on Panama’s Caribbean coast.

Our work shifted and expanded from our original goal of developing local capacities for controlling lionfish populations into a holistic program encompassing fisheries assessments, experiential education, capacity-building and addressing issues of food security and management measures.

Although many of the education events and workshops that we carry out in the archipelago still include training on the safe handling and use of invasive lionfish, we are developing a deeper understanding of the state of fisheries and fish populations in relation to community needs and challenges. This incremental knowledge has been  made possible through our annual standardized monitoring of big fish, and the first fisheries-dependent assessment of fisheries and fishers in Guna Yala conducted since the 1980s.

Carried out by our Guna Research Officer and University of Panama student, Leyson Navarro, who visited 11 fishing communities throughout the 370+ km length of the Comarca. Leyson interviewed 112 artisanal fishers about their fishing habits, key species captured, perceptions of the fisheries and changes in local fish populations, and conservation mechanisms such as Marine Protected Areas and gear limits.

Fishers interviewed highlighted significant changes in fish populations over time- with fewer total fish and smaller individuals being caught now compared to decades prior. Some species that were once fairly common, such as tarpon and even sawfish, have not been seen since the 1980s.

This has supported the data we have gathered through our monitoring- with few big fish species observed overall, especially in sites close to human communities. Over 75% of the fishers interviewed said that fishing was their only source of income, and they supported an average of five dependents. While most fishers fish to feed their families, those living closer to tourist hotspots are driven to use unsustainable gear types such as nets to better supply the visitors’ burgeoning demand for seafood.

Though the majority of individuals were in favor of limiting or banning the use of nets, they were not in favor of creating protected areas or closing areas to fishing. Unfortunately, the only way to bring back the fish and its concomitant fishery is to reduce fishing effort. Insights derived from the fisher interviews will underpin meetings to be held with the newly elected local leadership as they define novel strategies to move fisheries towards sustainability and secure food security in the Comarca. 

Lend your voice to sharks

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What if your country was declared a shark sanctuary but people knew little to nothing about it, or didn’t even understand sharks needed protection? Our public campaign to raise awareness for sharks and rays is launching this month in Honduras thanks to funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Houston Zoo and the Oak Foundation.

The initiative seeks to raise support for shark and ray protection in Latin American’s only declared shark sanctuary and reduce consumer demand for illegally sourced meat. We shaped our campaign strategies based on the results from a broadly applied public knowledge and perceptions survey conducted throughout main cities in Honduras in 2018, we determined that people know very little about sharks.

A high percentage of interviewees confirmed that their knowledge was derived from Discovery Channel programs and never from local television and media. Likewise, we confirmed that 91% of those interviewed agreed on the need for an entity that protects sharks and rays in Honduras; however, only 45% felt that it should be a Government entity. Nevertheless, the biggest obstacle is that despite the sanctuary designation, directed and incidental fishing for sharks and rays continues unabated in-country, generated by a demand for meat, protein alternatives, use of unsustainable gears and a lack of knowledge on the benefits sharks provide to keep the seas healthy.

Many fishermen and the general public are unaware of shark species’ age at maturity or fecundity, and generally think that they mature quickly like cats and dogs, produce tens or hundreds of young on a regular basis, when the exact opposite is true. A high percentage of the public is also unaware that shark meat is harmful to their health due to its high methyl mercury content and were unaware that fillet sold in markets is actually shark or ray.

To create awareness, change minds and begin the process of shifting consumers away from shark and ray products while we seek alternatives for fishers and traders dependent on these species for their livelihoods, we initiated the campaign “Lend Your Voice to Sharks”. Now highly visible in several malls and airports in Honduras as videos and banners, the country team has held focus group meetings with fishers, fish market vendors, consumers and is about to launch a social media campaign.

We look forward to informing on the impact of this campaign after we hold a post campaign survey following the peak of shark and ray consumption during the Lenten season in 2020. We hope to see consumption reduced, knowledge and awareness increased and more empathy for sharks and rays in the Honduras public.

Calema or #52, the amazing transatlantic migratory tiger shark

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A year ago, during our coastal shark study field work off the coast of Boavista, Cabo Verde, West Africa, we caught a female tiger shark. After ensuring she was in good shape and taking a range of measurements, we outfitted her with a satellite transmission tag on her dorsal fin and initially called her #52.

Little did we know that she would break records for her kind. Known scientifically as Galeocerdo cuvier, tiger sharks range widely in tropical and temperate seas, and can reach upwards of 5 meters (16+ feet). Curious and generally unafraid, they will investigate and consume a range of potential prey from Albatross birds learning to take flight, to green turtles and marine mammals, to their standard finfish fare. What tiger sharks are eating in the sites where we have found them is still a mystery.

We have since called her Calema in honor of favored musicians in the region and discovered that she has made an exceptional return journey across the Atlantic from Cabo Verde to Brazil and back. This is a first documented transatlantic return trip for this species. Unfortunately, after 263 days at liberty and over 13,000km traveled, Calema’s satellite tag ceased to transmit her positions in August.

This could have been due to the death of the tag’s battery, biofouling of the tag that can inhibit transmissions, or the animal’s death, most often due to being fished. The Eastern Atlantic is a hotspot for large scale fisheries that notably target sharks. We hope that she is still alive, but if dead, Calema has thankfully provided us with the first proof of a return migration by a tiger shark from West Africa.

She may have also revealed that tiger residency in Cabo Verde may be short-term and tied to reproduction or foraging as pups have not been readily observed. More mysteries to solve while we further identify how to abate threats to sharks in the region’s heavily fished waters.

 

“Elasmovangelizing”

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As I checked into my flight recently at Panama’s International Airport, I was asked a slew of security questions, where I revealed that I am a biologist. When pressed for what form of biology I dedicate time to, I shared “sharks”. Inciting a gasp from the agent. “Hey, sharks are amazing, beautiful creatures” I countered. “Keep me far away from them…” said the ticket agent. I couldn’t resist. I whipped out my phone to share a few pictures and videos (always handy, along with several show and tell sharks teeth) – much to the consternation of my fellow travelers waiting behind me in line. Moments later, I could tell that I had clearly moved the needle on the Shark-Fear-O-Meter from TERRIFIED to SKEPTICAL, and might I say, even into the realm of INQUISITIVE.

She even shared some of her new knowledge with the nearby baggage handler, who looked at me with a mix of incredulity and surprise. And then smiled broadly. Although I am not religious, I think I am starting to understand missionaries and their quest, nay zeal, to convert or “save” souls. In all honesty, I am little different in my approach when it comes to elasmovangelizing people. My hoped-for end result is to generate a better understanding and even support for the PR-challenged sharks and rays, collectively known as elasmobranchs.

Casual chats with people from all sectors of life are one of several means to lead to a hoped-for reversal in the dramatic declines in elasmo numbers. The causes of decline are many but overwhelmingly due to overfishing. The demand for shark and ray products is fueled by multiple sectors and businesses: fins for soup, meat for human food, pet food, cosmetics, joint medicine, boat waterproofing, curios and so much more. Yet, I have often wondered about the long-term effect of my elasmovangelizing, notably in light of my growing interest in behavioral change theory and practices linked to education and conservation. Fortunately, I got an answer sooner than expected.

During the following trip to Panama’s international airport, Mauricio, the taxi driver I often hire to take me to the airport confessed that he had been fishing a couple of weekends ago. He kept his eyes on the road while he shared, in a smaller voice, that he had caught two hammerhead sharks.

He described them well, leading me to think these belonged to the scalloped or great hammerhead shark clans. To describe their size, he took his hands off the steering wheel. Apparently, he didn’t ascribe to the usual fisher tall tales, as the animals weren’t a whole heck of a lot larger than the wheel. I jumped up and down in the passenger seat. For those who know me, there’s nothing sedate about my excitement at a new finding. Thankfully, we didn’t crash the car. The hammers’ small size indicated their recently born (neonate) status… in an area never previously pegged as a shark nursery.

All I could utter was a “WHAT DID YOU DO WITH THE HAMMERS?”. He looked at me slyly, grinned, and then said “I remembered what you had told me last time I took you to the airport, about how these guys are endangered, and when small are most likely babies, so we released them…”. It was a first for him and his fishing partner. And that’s not all. He now wants one of our CSI kits (Collaborative Shark Investigator) so he can go back, catch hammers with a purpose, contribute to science and spread the elasmogospel to generate pride and excitement with his friends to do exactly the same. And that is how we can change hearts and minds and move the needle for sharks. One soul at a time.

Rachel Graham

How fragile we are. In memoriam, Zeddy Seymour.

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In July, the unthinkable happened. We lost one of our own to a tragic accident. It hit us hard and changed us all. In pursuit of fish to eat and ever deeper depths in a sport he increasingly embraced, Zeddy Seymour, our Cabo Verde Country Coordinator, went spearfishing while in island of Sal. He did not surface from a deep dive. The news spread like a flash and left us in shock. Friends and colleagues were respectful and kind to keep it from social media while his family was alerted, and steps were taken to recover him from one of his favorite sea sites. Everyone, and I mean everyone, pulled together in a huge effort to bring him home to his family in the UK. In record time. He would have marveled at our collective efficiency and the temporary lifting of the bureaucracy’s veil to achieve this singular goal.

 The chasm left by his death has been hard to fill. Kind and easy in manner, he made loyal friends and colleagues at every turn. Committed and passionate about people and wildlife, and underpinning conservation with science, he reveled in the freedoms brought by the sea and the magnificence of working with its largest creatures. He shared this passion with all he encountered and made steadfast friends in the fishing communities with whom he worked. Zeddy may now be gone but he has not truly left. His legacy of starting the first large study on sharks in Cabo Verde, of discovering shark nurseries, tracking the largest of sharks and rays, improving understanding and conservation of these animals with fishers, students and decision-makers and the many students he inspired, continues. In fact, the movement he started is growing in strength and scope.

Our resilient Cabo Verdean Education and Outreach Officer, Cintia Lima, took over the role of Country Coordinator. She is grappling with a learning curve as she acquires leadership and managerial skills to best run a country program. Our team with many skills in strategy, HR, finance, tech is providing her with support to help her grow into this post and make it her own. Support extends to our top three community fisher leaders: Ze Luis Monteiro, Albertino ‘Tchoka’ Moreno and Joao Lima. With Zeddy’s loss, the four marine musketeers are now three: they have gamely taken the baton of Zeddy’s legacy and seeking to expand our program to other islands. Our research intern and recently graduated master’s student Francesco Garzon took on the mantle of Research Officer, and now runs our CV research and monitoring program, while helping to prepare several of Zeddy’s pending works for publication. Since identifying and nurturing local talent is important to us, we are looking to take on two local interns and masters students to grow our program further as Zeddy had planned.

We may have lost an incredible human, but he created a robust program that will grow his legacy while benefiting Cabo Verde, its coastal fishers and the marine wildlife we see to conserve. In parting, I share one of my favorite poems that I sent to his family to be read at his funeral.

 

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. 

  • Wendell Berry

 

We are keen to support Zeddy’s legacy through a scholarship program for children of Cabo Verde’s traditional fishers who wish to attend high school and local student interns that we are naming the Zeddy Seymour Scholarship Fund.

These students will become the decision-makers of tomorrow and help us to secure a future for sharks and rays and the communities that depend on them in Cabo Verde. Should you feel so moved, please consider donating to this scholarship fund at www.maralliance.org/donate and include the Zeddy scholarship fund in the notes.

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.