Sunlight feeds the plankton. Plankton feed sardines. It’s a classic notion of nature of which we’re all aware: the big fish eats the small fish; and as it happens, sharks sit atop the complex food chain. Thanks to the 1975 Spielberg film, Jaws, we fully understand that sharks are mean, predatory and fatal to innocent fish and mammals, especially humans. But what doesn’t always come into popular consciousness is this: scientists have found sharks to be efficient eaters, choosing prey that is sick, old, or slower among its population. Scientists recognize this as an overall benefit as it helps eliminate the spread of disease among fish populations and in essence maintains a healthy gene pool. By eating certain prey, sharks also help protect smaller fish down the food chain from being completely wiped out by their predators. In another case, sharks help protect certain habitats. When certain marine animals overstay their welcome in ocean grass beds, they damage the local habitat by preventing other animals from accessing vital nutrition from the grass. When sharks are present, however, those overstaying animals flee. It’s a complex interwoven, underwater ecosystem that we as community members, business owners, local fishermen, tourists and adventure seekers should strive to appreciate and respect. Despite its predatory role, sharks provide balance to ocean life. Without sharks, the ecosystem would collapse.

Caye Caulker, we have a problem.

Recent local news reported the ongoing concern as sharks continue to fall prey to local fishing activities –whether fished for its meat as food or for its fins as a relatively lucrative export to Asia (where shark fins are a delicacy). Various shark preservation organizations, such as locally based Belize Shark Project not only provide scientific research on sharks and their ecological importance they also report the monetary impact sharks have on the local economy through its tourism industry. In 2012, shark-related tourism generated $3.7 million USD. While the numbers alone should reveal why sharks are worth more alive than dead, it is meanwhile just as critical to offer equal consideration to local fishermen who depend on “the day’s catch.” What sort of alternative income can they generate if their fishing activities, in general, are being displaced? And while it has become widespread knowledge that shark meat contains a high level of mercury, the information regarding the danger of its consumption is not swiftly adopted by communities which consider its meat or fins as a normal part of their diet. Another local notion may also contend that fishing for shark meat dates back to centuries and is just as woven into their cultural practice. Certainly, there remains a thin line between economic development and cultural preservation. It’s a sensitive ground. Lastly, in response to the news, a local proponent had raised issue on the dollar figures relating to shark-tourism: how much of these multi-million dollars actually filter down to the local regulatory agencies and create direct impacts? While it’s easier to identify what needs to be done, executing the necessary steps to end shark fishing is a different story.

As a community, we value and deeply respect the health of our ecosystem. As tourists, we marvel at nature and enjoy the access -not only to sharks, but to all life forms surrounding the reef. As leaders and participants of the tourism industry, we strive to be responsible. Through tourism and fact sharing, we can educate and inform visitors and locals alike, and take steps towards keeping our sharks at bay.

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