Sharks missing at Shark Ray Alley

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 13, No. 11            March 27, 2003

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Local residents, tour guides and tourists have issued a number of reports recently regarding the disappearance of Nurse sharks at Shark Ray Alley. This area, inside the Hol Chan Marine Reserve (HCMR), is a very popular snorkeling spot due to the amount of relatively "tame" Nurse sharks and stingrays that reside in the area and intermingle with visitors.

    According to reports from local tour guides, the numbers of Nurse sharks, in this part of the marine park, have been steadily declining during the past three weeks. Startling is the fact that as many as a dozen sharks have been spotted during one visit and now, at times, only one Nurse shark is found swimming in the "alley". Tour guides working inside Caye Caulker Marine Reserve have also witnessed fewer numbers of sharks.

    Illegal fishing and the impacts of increased tourism are but two explanations for the disappearance of the sharks. Speaking with Isaias Majil, the Marine Protected Areas (MPA) Coordinator at the Fisheries Department, it was learned that northern Belize fishermen from Sarteneja were questioned when eight Nurse sharks were found in their boat. The fishermen denied allegations of illegal fishing activities and stated they had made their catch five to seven miles south of the marine park in the Cangrejo Caye area. It was noted that everyone aboard had the required legal documents for this type of fishing. Also stated was that the nets used were found to be of the type that would yield more types of fish other than Nurse sharks and no other fish were discovered on board. An initial survey of Hol Chan showed that other fish supplies did not appear to be depleted as would be normal if this type of fishing had occurred. Additional monitoring of the area has found the same fishermen utilizing the spot they claimed to be fishing.

    Another report of illegal fishing stated an eyewitness account of a tour guide fishing at night inside Hol Chan. This information led to the accused guide being given a warning and suspended from the area for one month. One resident criticized this type of fishing as; "It's like shooting fish in a barrel when anyone kills these docile creatures that have come to trust the human visitors. This seriously compromises the good reputation of our other, more responsible tour guides, and threatens to destroy one of our biggest tourist attractions."

    Changes in habitat could also be a reason the sharks are currently avoiding Shark Ray Alley. A Hol Chan Marine Reserve survey conducted late last year showed concern over the escalating numbers of people visiting the park at one time (particularly from cruise ships). Recommendations at that time included limiting these numbers, as well as: enforcing the Belize Tourism Board (BTB) rule of 10 visitors per guide (after arrangements with BTB), and requesting that cruise ships have an educator on board to inform guests about marine conservation before they depart for snorkeling trips. Handling of Nurse sharks and stingrays is yet another suspected infraction. Even though tour guides are often warned not to handle the marine animals, this behavior is often reported to occur.

   According to Miguel Alamilla, Manager for HCMR, rangers patrol the marine reserve during the day, and random patrols are conducted at night to prevent these types of illegal activity. Fisheries stated that additional patrols have been ordered for the immediate time being.
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