ADVOCATE Rachel Graham studying whale sharks off Nosy Be, Madagascar.

Helping a Species That Leaves Few Feeling Warm and Fuzzy


BELIZE CITY, Belize — Among conservation biologists, Rachel Graham is sometimes called the aquatic Jane Goodall: She has developed new information about the lives of her research subjects and, like the famous primatologist, she has successfully deployed science to create a constituency for their preservation. RSS Feed

But Dr. Graham’s subjects lack the all-but-human charms of Dr. Goodall’s chimps. As the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Gulf and Caribbean Sharks and Rays Program, Dr. Graham must overcome deeply held fears and prejudices in her efforts to outlaw fishing of various shark species, including the whale shark, a playful and friendly creature that migrates to the western Caribbean every spring. That species of shark is now protected off the coasts of Belize and Mexico, and last May Dr. Graham received the 2011 Gold Award and about $100,000 from the Whitley Fund for Nature in England for her work on its behalf.

We spoke for three hours at a hotel here, then later by telephone. A condensed and edited version of the two conversations follows.

You are a citizen of Belize. Did you grow up here?

No. I spent a large part of my childhood in Tunisia, that little tinderbox that last spring sparked so many changes in the world. I’m very excited to be from there. My British mother and American father were international vagabonds who met while teaching in Sierra Leone. We were this migratory family.

Wherever we lived, I was always bringing home creatures — lizards, snakes, scorpions. Perhaps because I was this blue-eyed tomboy in places where no one else was that, I identified with marginalized animal species. My mother tells the story of my coming home from school, complaining: “It’s so boring there. Nobody wants to talk about piranhas or sharks!”

What appeals to you about sharks?

They are beautiful and graceful. And they are migratory, like my family was. On an ecological level, they play an important role because they keep their prey species in check.

The other thing is that once you get to know them, you can see that there’s great intelligence there. They haven’t been around for almost 400 million years without having evolved tremendous smarts. One of the species I study — the whale shark — they are the most brilliant of navigators. They travel thousands of miles without a compass, and they arrive at a certain spot in Belize each year just when the reef fish are spawning and there’s a wonderful buffet for them to eat.

Give us a summary of the state of the world’s sharks.

About 17 percent of 1,200 species of sharks and rays are threatened with extinction. For those species that swim in the open ocean, the numbers are even more dire. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports that a third of them are threatened. Most of their decline seems to be due to overfishing for shark fin soup — a prestige food in many parts of Asia. I can see firsthand what those statistics mean whenever I go diving. Twenty years ago, if you went out on the barrier reef here, you’d stand a good chance of seeing several of the giant toothy sharks — a hammerhead or a blacktip. Today, if you’re lucky, you might see a nurse shark or a stingray.

Was it hard to win that ban on whale shark fishing here in Belize?

It was pretty low-hanging fruit, actually. People just adore whale sharks. They are huge and beautiful, with incredible spotted markings. Whale sharks are quite friendly, and they are filter feeders, so they lack those terrifying big teeth. It’s altogether much more difficult to protect other species of sharks and rays because they are a large component of fisheries.

However, this law has been a great thing for shark conservation, in general. It’s nice to be able to say: “O.K., you’ve done this. Let’s do the same for the other shark species.”

What would you advise a traveler to China who is offered shark fin soup?

I’d say: “Think very carefully before you do it. Why you would want to eat species that are threatened with extinction and that are very bad for you?” The level of mercury in fins and sharks is very, very high.

Listen, it’s happened to me! When I was in Taiwan in 2005 for the world’s first whale shark ecotourism conference, I was actually offered hammerhead soup. We went to some restaurant and these lovely people set this bowl in front of me. I just picked at other dishes and said nothing.

What do you feel when you see headlines about shark attacks on swimmers?

It troubles me, of course. That sort of coverage is overblown, and it imperils many species of sharks and rays. As much as one can sympathize with the victims of these attacks, people ought to realize that when they go into the wilderness, they risk becoming part of the food chain. That’s just reality. The fact is that the number of these incidents is low. The International Shark Attack File logged six unprovoked fatalities last year.

So is “Jaws” your least favorite movie?

In fact, it’s not my least favorite movie. It’s got such great lines that as shark researchers we use again and again. Like “We’re going to need a bigger boat!” We love that line!

You spend a lot of time underwater tagging sharks with radio sensors. Do you ever worry about being attacked?

I’m always sensitive to the moods of the sharks. If they are active in a certain way, I’ll leave. If they start circling, I’m out of there! But I have to tell you, that kind of caution isn’t exclusive to sharks. I’ve gotten out of the water when I saw dolphins — yes, adorable sweet dolphins — acting in ways I found alarming.

In any event, the most serious threats I’ve encountered have come from people. There’s a shadowy shark fishery here, operated by teams of our neighbors from Guatemala who work from isolated islands. The animals are killed at night and loaded onto boats and then shipped to landing sites in Guatemala where the meat and fins are exported, probably to the Asian market.

In 2007, I did a report for the Belizean government. I estimated how many sharks were being caught and taken out of the country. Afterward, I was told by Guatemalan fisherman I’d worked with, “It’s probably not a good time for you to go to Guatemala.” I just don’t go there anymore. I’m a single mother. I’ve got to take that kind of thing seriously.

Knowing these animals as intimately as you do, do you ever feel despair about what is happening to them?

Actually, I’m optimistic. There still are sharks left, and so with many of the species, there is time to reverse what we’ve done to them. Think back to when turtles were thought of as jewelry boxes and fodder for soup. Today if there’s any mention of turtle slaughters, it becomes big news. So I think there’s a big chance for changing how people feel about sharks and rays. As people learn more about them, they see that their slaughter is unsustainable and morally wrong.