Sharks and Rays –

Sharks and Rays –
Worth more alive than dead

National News: Belize contributes to historic
trade protection for sharks and

Contributed by – Dr. Rachel Graham,
Director Gulf and Caribbean Sharks and Rays Program, Wildlife Conservation

Last week, government and conservation leaders in Belize
made a historic and bold decision to protect sharks and rays from the ravages of
international trade. In doing so, they are also protecting the economic future
of Belize and Belizean families.
Country delegates attending the 16th
conference of the parties for the Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) voted on Thursday March 14th
to list five commercially fished species of sharks and three species of rays
currently threatened with extinction.
Over the course of 15 years of working
with sharks in Belize, first with whale sharks and then with coastal and
reef-associated sharks and rays, many have asked me “but why should we care
about sharks?” Sharks and rays are extremely good for Belize in a host of ways.
Similar to the role that jaguars and eagles play on land, sharks and rays
provide ecosystems services that keep the estuarine, coastal and marine
environments healthy. Sharks play a critical role in keeping the populations of
many prey species in balance. This has important consequences for many habitats,
notably coral reefs. Studies conducted on pristine reefs in the Pacific indicate
a strong linkage between healthy resilient reefs and high numbers of sharks.
With the impacts of climate change and invasive species now being felt, sharks
can foster resilience in our finfish fisheries and the Belize Barrier Reef as
stressors such as increased water temperatures, ocean acidification, pollution
and even the invasion of the alien lionfish (a Pacific species)
Tourism, Belize’s biggest source of income, is another strong
economic argument for keeping sharks alive. Belize’s sharks and rays
conservatively generate a minimum of BZ$10 million annually in renewable tourism
revenue. This income is broadly distributed across the country’s economic
landscape. Many protected areas, communities, businesses and families, benefit
from sharks both through direct revenue and indirectly through the provision of
tourist accommodation and food. If the Republic of Palau can generate USD$ 18
million annually and the Bahamas can generate US$78 million annually from shark
tourism, Belize should be able to generate substantially more because unlike
most other shark diving destinations, we have also tremendous land-based
attractions and an incredible Barrier Reef to boast of that will keep shark
divers in country longer. Belize could in fact become THE shark diving
destination in the Caribbean.
But this requires live sharks and rays. Studies
in the Maldives showed that each live reef shark was worth US$ 33,500 annually.
In Palau a single shark’s worth reached US$ 1.9 million over its lifetime (25-30
years). Yet a dead shark is only worth a couple of hundred dollars, the benefits
are non-renewable and are poorly distributed to only a handful of often
non-resident fishers. Surveys conducted with fishers and the public in 2006 and
2011 indicates that there is little demand for shark products in Belize, sharks
are not universally feared and there is a strong desire to see sharks
If economic arguments are insufficient as a basis for stronger
conservation measures, consider this: Sharks are not healthy to eat. Sitting at
the top of the food chain, sharks accumulate in their bodies a host of heavy
metals and other substances that are known to be toxic to humans. Notably,
analyses of tissues of 172 sharks representing 11 species landed by fishers in
Belize showed that over 80% of samples had unacceptable levels of mercury – a
potent neurotoxin. This strongly suggests that shark meat should not be
consumed, especially by women and children.
The next steps in the effective
management and conservation of sharks and rays, globally and in Belize will be
Species listed on CITES require that international trade be
closely monitored and regulated (Appendix II listing) or prohibited (Appendix I
listing) by countries party to the convention. Belize currently regulates trade
in the commercially fished Queen conch (Appendix II). Following the Thursday
March 14th CITES votes, Belize will now need to regulate exports of rosewood
(Appendix II), oceanic white tip sharks, the scalloped, smooth and great
hammerheads, the porbeagle shark, two species of manta rays (all on Appendix II)
and the freshwater sawfish (Appendix I). These species join the previously
listed whale, basking and white sharks (Appendix II) and four other critically
endangered species of sawfish (Appendix I). The listings will strongly
complement any national protective measures (e.g., whale sharks) and regional
management measures. Hammerhead exports are already prohibited under an
agreement with the regional fisheries management organization the International
Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT).
There is now no
doubt that international trade is the primary driver in the dramatic decline in
numerous shark and rays populations. Several studies have shown that populations
of several commercially fished species of sharks and rays have declined over
80%, with hammerhead populations decreasing by over 90% within a human
generation (which equals a generation for several shark species). Two separate
global studies have estimated median landings of 38 million and 100 million
sharks a year respectively, mostly to supply Asia’s voracious demand for the
status-laden shark fin soup. Manta rays and their smaller cousins the mobulas
(found in Belize) have not avoided Asia’s insatiable demand for marine products:
they are targeted for their gill plates, which are turned into ineffective
medicine. The use of nets and longlines in particular are key culprits in the
declines. Compounded by these maturity and low productivity (few young produced
after a gestation period of over 9-12 months with a pause between litters), it
is clear that the current rate of exploitation is grossly unsustainable.
54 shark-fishing permits have already been given out this year by the Department
of Fisheries and recent documented captures include hammerheads, which cannot be
exported. A study conducted on the shark fishery in Belize in 2007 indicated
that shark catches, particularly of formerly abundant hammerheads, had declined
significantly and that the majority of all shark products were leaving Belize
illegally for neighboring countries. Products were then further exported to Asia
(confirmed by a study that genetically matched hammerhead fins from our region
to those found in Hong Kong markets).
To put the status of sharks in
perspective, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) calls
on its 130 experts worldwide to assess the status of species of sharks and rays.
Such assessments have shown that 17% of the 1050 assessed species are threatened
with extinction. There is insufficient information to conduct an assessment on
almost half of 152 species known to occur in the Caribbean. Additional research
may find that these species are also threatened; yet our greatest challenge is
now finding and studying these animals.
If we think “deh caan be dun”
consider this: two species of sawfish (smalltooth and largetooth) formerly
abundant in Belize’s rivers and sand flats are now gone. Sawfish are
ecologically if not fully extinct in our region. And based on fisher surveys
along the coast of Belize and neighboring Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, nets
are again squarely blamed for the demise of sawfish.
There is a period of 18
months before the new CITES listing requirements come into effect. During this
time training in the identification of shark products and export monitoring
methods will be needed to effect closer scrutiny of all shark fishing activity
and exports. Greater vigilance and enforcement will also be needed to ensure
that all landings are accounted for and all exports are legal.
In the
meantime it is worth reflecting on the incompatibility of shark encounter
tourism versus shark fishing in Belize. An increasing number of countries
including Honduras have banned shark and ray fishing as they realize the value
of live sharks to their marine ecosystem and their economies. Why kill and give
away our precious iconic jaguars of the sea to other countries when our fish,
our reef and our economy needs all the help it can get. Let us do right by our
sharks and rays and join a rapidly growing number of nations worldwide who have
embraced the reality that sharks and rays are worth far more alive than
San Pedro Sun