Catalysing change

Words and photographs by Dr Rachel Graham

I had my first experience in the water with sharks while diving off the Sinai Peninsula nearly 30 years ago.

I had just obtained my diving certification a few months prior and was visiting my mother who was working in the region for the UN. I remember chugging out in the small boat to an area north-east of Ras Muhammed, the southern-most point of the Sinai peninsula where the Gulf of Aquaba meets the Gulf of Suez in the Red Sea. We were told that our drift dive would take us past a wall and onto a platform where we would ascend. The current took us flying past a stunning wall that I subsequently found out plunges to a kilometre in depth, only to slow and nearly halt once we had passed it. There out in the blue, were sharks. I’m not entirely sure what got ahold of me but it was the first time I had seen sharks in the wild. I swam towards them. There were only a few at first, and then 10, then 20, then 30. They were all whizzing about me within feet, some within inches. I was transfixed. I laughed into my regulator and clapped my hands with delight. I lost count after more than 50 sharks appeared. They were all grey reef, Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos, were all fairly beefy and approximately six feet in length. I turned to look for the others and saw them far away very close to the wall or near the platform. I was completely alone amid my very own sharknado and I couldn’t have been happier. That is when I knew sharks would play a part in my life – one way or another.

I was extremely keen on sharks and the sea from the age of four years old. I was seven when I witnessed the fishing of tuna during their annual migration off the coast of Tunisia, and saw fishers herding them with nets and clubbing and gaffing them. The water ran red with blood and I could see that the fish, which were swimming on top of one another, were petrified as they tried to escape. That experience struck me hard and shaped a concern for the seas and marine wildlife that took many more years to form who I am, what I now do for these animals and how I work with those whose livelihoods depend on them.

The largest threat to sharks and rays today is overfishing. Every other threat at this stage is secondary. And although there is a large western focus on finning, the demand for fins and the act of finning are not the threats, the actual act of fishing is the threat, whether it’s targeted or not. The outlandish level of fishing effort using highly unsustainable gear and extremely advanced technologies has ensured that fish can’t escape. Globally, governments have a collective goal to protect 10% of the world’s seas by 2020. However these protected areas, both established and proposed, do not encompass all species and all populations during all periods of their life cycle. But they can help to protect them during their most vulnerable stages in life such as post-birth, feeding predictably, and are therefore one of several solutions to enable populations and species to persist, along with time closures, gear bans or restrictions and species capture bans. Being migratory, some highly so, most shark and ray species use a range of habitats and sites and are therefore constantly subjected to fishing pressures. Another aspect that plays against these animals is their slow life history. Most people do not realise that many large bodied sharks reach sexual maturity around the same age as humans or far later (over 20 years for a whale shark, over 100 for a Greenland shark) and generally have few young, where species such as manta rays or sand tiger sharks only have one pup after a year’s gestation. Add in a reproductive pause following pupping in many of the species to the equation and you have species that are intrinsically unable to recover populations, even those that are subjected to relatively low levels of exploitation.

shark and ray marine conservation MarAlliance
shark and ray marine conservation MarAlliance underwater research
whale shark and ray marine conservation MarAlliance

My research and work with MarAlliance is highly inter-disciplinary with the ultimate goal of securing a future for large marine wildlife. Projects encompass multiple prongs of research, education and outreach, capacity-building, conservation action, alternative livelihoods, management and policy support and the interface with human health. Our research into the spatial ecology of sharks and rays in Panama and Cabo Verde to better understand how they use different habitats, the drivers of their movements and strategies we can shape to better protect them throughout as large a portion of their life cycle as possible. Our tagging and genetics work also seeks to answer questions about population size and distribution, connectivity between habitats, sites, countries and even entire regions, again with the expectation that we shape or support the shaping of management and conservation strategies that favour their survival. I have demonstrated both bouts of residency linked to broad movements and great connectivity between sites for species such as whale sharks, manta rays, and a host of other large animals. This in turn has helped to establish or expand protected areas in Belize and Mexico to protect key foraging sites. My team and I also characterise small-scale fisheries and the degree of threats they pose to larger wildlife as we have done in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Cabo Verde and currently in Panama. From fisheries comes the question of trade. We work on several tangents here, from assessing the degree of trade, trade flows and supply chains in data poor countries to working to influence consumer behaviour, encouraging a move towards eating more sustainably fished or rapidly reproducing fish species. Species we work with such as the endangered large bodied hammerheads are listed on CITES and their trade across borders is prohibited unless population assessments have been conducted that clearly demonstrate that fisheries will not unduly impact the species. We help governments with data on trade, fisheries and ultimately the MarAlliance team helped to co-develop an electronic tool to simplify and streamline the assessments that CITES requires for all listed species of sharks and rays.

Sharks and rays that show high degrees of site fidelity or residency to a particular site or even regular patterns of movement that establish a corridor of sorts, essentially makes them “fish in a barrel” and more easily captured. Their removal can have impacts not only on their ecosystems, creating changes in the food web that we are still trying to decipher, along with actual changes in the social networks and hierarchies of certain species as we discovered more recently with Caribbean reef sharks in Belize. And our overall long-term monitoring projects give us insights into population demographics and size frequency changes to help guide us when assessing whether conservation strategies such as whether marine protected areas are successful or if other measures are required to protect threatened populations.

I have so many amazing and significant memories from my work with MarAlliance but a few stand out. Once, I was interviewing a hardcore shark fisherman after he had worked with my team of fishers to monitor the animals. He began to cry and told me he did not want to kill sharks anymore and that he wanted to find a way to monitor them. He felt bad that he had had to kill them to get money to feed his family. We never preach, or castigate anyone joining our team to conduct the shark science, we just monitor, talk, work and talk some more.

Across the board and throughout many countries, traditional fishers have shared with me that they now have to work much harder to bring home the same amount of animals as they did when they were young. This disparity is most acute with the oldest fishers who, in their youth, would fish close to shore for an hour or so and have enough to bring home to the family and some to sell. With the advent of refrigeration, introduction of nets, more powerful engines and technologies such as the global positioning systems (GPS), fishers have been able to increase their effort considerably, which has led to dramatic declines in most populations of finfish and their cartilaginous cousins the sharks and rays. Preferred species such as large groupers have now become scarce and due to serial depletion of a range of fish species, so fishers in the tropics are now catching and eating species they wouldn’t have considered eating before, including triggerfish, angelfish and sharks. The consumption of shark and ray meat is on the rise in countries where previously it was seldom consumed due to the loss of preferred finfish.

shark and ray marine conservation MarAlliance
shark and ray marine conservation MarAlliance traditional fishermen
shark and ray marine conservation MarAlliance reef monitoring
shark and ray marine conservation MarAlliance manta

After many years of working with sharks and rays in Belize and Cabo Verde’s island of Boavista MarAlliance has seen a considerable attitudinal change towards eating sharks and a popular movement to support their conservation. We are currently running a campaign to raise awareness and foster empathy for sharks and rays in Honduras as part of the work to reduce the seasonal consumption of dried and salted shark and ray known as cecina.

When it comes to choosing new sites for our projects, we base it on where we feel that we can move the needle for shark and ray conservation and there is both government and community will to do so. Unfortunately, our work can face a great deal of mistrust, apathy, skepticism. Engaging fishers and students in our science locally, sharing our results on a regular basis, making work fun and decently remunerated as well as listening and nurturing dialogue have all been essential to forging alliances, generating enthusiasm and building trust. Expansion and replication of field activities is generally led by our core team of fishers conducting the training and work facilitated by me or my staff. MarAlliance is also one of the few international NGOs working on the interface of marine research, conservation and education that has permanent bases and programs in multiple countries. We are a small organisation so we look to see how best we can have impact, catalyse horizontal learning between stakeholders — notably traditional fishers, decision-makers, conservation partners, and students — and see clear attitudinal change that includes a change in fishing behaviour, as well as consumer choice. Developing the capacities and skillsets of a variety of key groups is critical to local empowerment, to a long-term commitment to conservation and to fostering the next generation of marine conservation scientists.

When I started with the educational program after winning the Whitley Award in 2011, which provided the seed funding for the work, I immediately got the young students in the water with sharks and rays. I have always learnt best from experience and wanted to pass this on to the kids I taught. It’s one thing to tell kids ‘don’t be afraid of sharks, they won’t eat you’ and another to demonstrate it. Luckily, in Belize we have a fantastic site off of Ambergris Caye which has an aggregation of nurse sharks and rays that are fed, and therefore predictable. This is where I took students after giving them background in schools about the animals, marine science and conservation measures such as protected areas.

As well as our work with students, we also focus a lot of our training towards young women. Women are often underrepresented in the sciences, especially in tropical countries. This is even more glaring in marine and fisheries sciences. I have found throughout my 27 years of working in the fields of development, environment and marine science that women are less reckless, more diplomatic, work harder, are more collaborative, think outside the box and bear a disproportionate amount of challenges, specifically from societal, cultural and family expectations. Identifying talented young women whose passion is better understanding and conserving marine wildlife and giving them the opportunity to get ahead in this competitive field and be a strong voice for marine conservation in their country helps us all to meet our larger goal. MarAlliance training programmes can consist of field research techniques, lab techniques, data entry and analyses, improving scientific and lay writing, leadership skills, public speaking, learning how to frame a project with research design all the way to implementation and developing proposals.

The reality is, MarAlliance can’t keep up with demand. We have been asked by communities, fishers, associations, peers and government entities to establish programs and projects. There is a greater need now more than ever to gather baseline data on wildlife populations and threats, monitor changes, catalyse conservation actions. We also must build in-country scientific skills, as well as an understanding and empathy for marine wildlife and support enlightened policy-making. Therefore, I believe MarAlliance will grow. We started with just four people in 2014. We are now a team of 35. I have moved out of my comfort zone, let go of much of the field work that formerly defined me and delegate so I can focus on the big picture, the goal of doing all we can to secure a future for sharks and rays in the tropical seas we work in. This shift helps me to not only support my team, our dependent communities and partners but enable the creation of resilient structures that will allow for smoother expansion and replication to other sites and countries. As part of this, my ethos is to find and nurture great local talent, passionate people who can also visualise a better future for wildlife in their respective countries.

Working towards shark and rays conservation is not a short term career choice. Due to the animals’ life history of slow growth, late maturity and longevity, those of us working in this field are doing so for the long run. I am profoundly grateful to work in this field; these animals give me the ability to follow my passion and give back to wildlife and people, empower and enthuse others to do the same and to do my bit to help preserve our natural world.

Dr Rachel Graham will be speaking at the 2019 Jackson Wild Summit, running September 21st-27th, which will have a conservation focus of ‘Living Oceans’. She will be co-presenting the ‘Species on the Brink’ session. Click here to register to attend the summit.


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