Fishermen guard shark ‘superhighway’

But, as with highways on land, this maritime corridor can be dangerous. Overfishing, commercial development and illegal finning practices endanger species such as whale sharks, reef sharks and manta rays. These creatures are already in a fragile state, with more than a third sharks and rays are endangered worldwide.

“We are seeing continued declines in many sharks and shark populations across most of the countries we monitor,” says Rachel Graham, founder of MarAlliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting sharks and rays across America. “Our goal is to reverse this decline,” she adds.

By monitoring threatened marine life in a region, MarAlliance can gather important information about populations that can help preserve information and spur political action. But instead of opposing the local fishing community, the NGO enlists their help.

“These are the ones who are at sea every single day,” says Graham, “and they are the ones who will decide the long-term fate of sharks and fish.”

Fishermen become environmentalists

MarAlliance employs up to 60 fishermen across the range, mostly on a project basis, training them to collect data, tag and release fish. This not only provides fishing communities with an alternative income by making them less dependent on natural resources, but also teaches them the benefits of a healthy ocean ecosystem and sustainable fishing practices.

Ivan Torres is one such fisherman. Before joining MarAlliance, he said, he caught sharks to sell to locals as food, but now he has learned how important they are to the health of the entire ecosystem. As apex predators, they help control other populations, and by maintaining a balance, they can actually increase the daily catch for fishermen.

“I would never fish for sharks again…because now I know how important they are to the sea,” he says.

Caribbean reef sharks are listed as endangered by the IUCN due to threats to fisheries and habitat loss.

If this change in attitude continues to spread among fishing communities along the Mesoamerican Reef, Graham has hope for populations of sharks and other species.

“The main threat to sharks is undoubtedly overfishing,” she says, and by reforming the industry, populations could bounce back.

In 2020, Belize banned the use of gillnets, large panels of netting that hang in the water and are known for entangling large marine animals. The impact of the ban is already being seen in areas like Lighthouse Reef, an atoll off the mainland, Graham said.

It was an area suffering from overfishing and some boats crossed international waters to exploit its resources. But between 2019 and 2021, MarAlliance recorded a 10-fold increase in the shark population on the atoll. “What we see is nothing short of a miracle,” she says.

But these kinds of rules need to be replicated across the superhighway for long-term impact, and countries need to find a sustainable balance between fishermen and those caught.

Graham hopes that through training and providing an economic alternative to fishing communities, MarAlliance will help ensure the safe passage of megafauna along the reef.

“We need to find a win-win strategy between the livelihood of the fishermen and the survival of the sharks,” she says.