In June of last year, we told you how the Ministry of the Blue Economy passed a special statutory instrument to crack down on illegal shark fishing in Belize.
GOB was trying to ensure that the shark populations that still live in Belizean territorial waters could recover and eventually thrive, despite overfishing. In other parts of the world, certain species of sharks are listed as critically endangered. To ensure that this doesn't happen in Belize, the Briceno Government implemented this SI, which establishes a protected area of around 1,500 square miles for sharks. As a result, shark fishing is now prohibited within a two-nautical-mile radius around the Lighthouse Reef, Glover's Reef, and Turneffe atolls.
The Half-moon Caye Natural Monument, which is co-managed by the Belize Audubon Society, forms part of that expansive protected area for sharks established 13 months ago. It is also the location where the Mar Alliance, a multi-national marine conservation organization, has been studying sharks in Belize for the last 15 years. According to the recent data they've collected, they say that shark populations in Belize are starting to recover. That recovery is being credited to stricter domestic protections, such as that SI, the ban on gill nets, and the 2 years of the pandemic, which meant that legal and illegal shark fishing was significantly curtailed.
Today, the Mar Alliance invited the press out to Half-moon Caye to observe their shark tagging program, which forms part of their ongoing studies of the different shark species. Our news team returned just before the start of our evening newscast, so we'll have the full story for you on Monday. But, here's a small snippet of our all-day trip with the conservationists:
Dr. Rachel Graham - Founder/Executive Director, Mar Alliance
"We caught 4 sharks today. In fact, we had such an amazing team. We have this incredible alliance with fishers, guides, and Fisheries. We all caught actually 7 sharks in total and one big loggerhead turtle to put a satellite tag on, but right with this boat, 4 sharks: a couple of females and a couple of males."
"So, tell us about species and the sizes."
Dr. Rachel Graham
"So, what we caught just a few minutes ago, were 4 Caribbean reef sharks. They're probably the second-most common type of shark in the Caribbean. They've really been hit very hard by over-fishing in the past few years - I'd say 10-20 years, but they're really coming back. We're starting to see them come back in a big way at Lighthouse, Turneffe, and other places. So, we're very excited about that because they mean a lot to Belize's tourism, and also, they keep the coral reef really healthy. What did we see? We saw a lot of juveniles today on the west side. This is a really good sign. We definitely want those adults, and we're hoping that we'll be catching some adults, but juveniles, that's the next-gen. That's the future of our sharks."
"Tell us about the process that happened. They were caught on the lines. We saw you guys tagging. Explain that process."
Dr. Rachel Graham
"So, what we have to do is - you know. We tried email and WhatsApp, but they don't respond to WhatsApp and email, you know. They're very inconsiderate. What can I say? So, unfortunately, we do have to catch them with hooks. We use circular hooks because we want to mouth-catch them. We also put in the lines for a very short period of time because we don't want to stress out the sharks. Once we catch a shark, we keep it in the water. We like to keep it in the water because it's a lot less stressful that way. You see a lot of the times on the big channels; you see them hauling out the sharks and everything. We don't like to do that so much. We can keep them in the water, keep them happy. And we move very quickly. Our team is incredible. They work fast. They're like a well-oiled machine. Everybody knows what to do. We measure. We take a little fin clip sample for population analysis. You then get it ready for the conventional tag. And if it's the kind of shark that we really want to be able to tag with a satellite tag, which is a lot more expensive, like a great hammerhead, which is critically endangered, or a lemon shark, which we've not seen very much of, but we really want to know more about. Then, we'll be putting on one of these satellite tags, which will transmit up the satellite and tell us basically where it has been in its journey as a shark, which is very important. So today, we got the conventional tags out, just the numbers tags that tell us that this is shark #771. This is shark 777; it's a female, and we hope to recapture them over time and see how they grow. Also, they've been recaptured in places like Mexico and other parts of the Belize Barrier Reef. So, we see the sharks here at Lighthouse; they're ceding the rest of the Mesoamerican Reef, a very important site here."
As you heard, the Mar Alliance team caught seven sharks and 1 one turtle for tagging today. We observed the tagging of four of those sharks, which happened this afternoon. The others were caught, tagged, and released in the early morning when our news team was still in transit to Half-moon Caye. We'll have the full story on our Monday evening newscast.