Sharks, stingrays, whale sharks and anything ocean-related are near and dear to my heart. I’ve had a love for the ocean and water for as long as I can remember, so for me to pick an ocean related conservation project was a no-brainer. When Dr. Rachel Graham with MarAlliance came to the Zoo in May as part of our Wildlife Speaker Series, I knew that I wanted to help them out in anyway I could!
We have an awesome program here at the Houston Zoo called the Staff Conservation Fund. Every year the staff can donate money to the fund, and then staff can apply for funding to assist or develop a suitable conservation effort of their choice. I did just that, using my photography skills to help MarAlliance spread the word about shark and stingray conservation!
MarAlliance is a marine conservation group based out of Belize that focuses on sharks, stingrays, sea turtles and large finfish. The meaning of their name has two parts: Mar means “sea” in Spanish, and they are also “allied for marine wildlife.” A lot of people, maybe even you, are afraid of sharks. When you hear the word shark, most people think “shark attack!” The truth is, the shark’s reputation is far worse than its bite, and a misunderstanding about their nature has overshadowed the truth about why shark attacks happen.
In reality, sharks have more to fear from humans than we do of them. Each year, millions of sharks are killed by the fishing industry either as intentional or unintentional bycatch, which is catching marine species that are not your intended target. Bycatch can affect many other marine animals besides sharks such as, stingrays, sea turtles, whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, other fish species and many more. That’s why it’s very important for fisheries to use a proper and sustainable type of fishing to avoid as much bycatch as possible.
The other main threat to sharks is the consumption of shark fin soup, which is a delicacy among the Chinese and has grown ever popular in recent years. But it is not only served in China: The soup is served all around the world including the US. Fishermen from around the world catch up sharks by the millions specifically for their fins in the use of this soup. Often times the rest of the body is not used, just discarded. And the fin itself does not actually taste, it’s more just for texture.
Consuming this soup in large quantities, and shark in general, can be hazardous to our health as well. Sharks absorb a lot of mercury from the water and the fish they eat, which we put into our body when we eat the shark. This can be a very serious health risk for mercury poisoning.
With growing demand for this delicacy, sharks are being fished at an unsustainable rate, meaning we are catching more of them than they have time to reproduce. Sharks have a slow rate of growth, late maturity or birthing age and they don’t produce many offspring at a time. All those factors make it hard for the shark population to make a recovery from over fishing.
So why are sharks so important? Because “Many Sharks = A Healthy Reef”. If you’ve ever seen a healthy reef system, there’s a good chance that there were sharks in the area as well. Sharks prey on fish and other sharks, and specifically sick and injured ones. When the sick and injured are taken out of the ecosystem, that makes room for the healthy ones and prevents disease spread. If sharks are disappearing from an area, then that part of the food chain is disrupted and things begin to fall out of balance.
Reefs are like little bustling cities in the ocean. Many different aquatic life use them as homes and feeding grounds. So having healthy reef systems in our ocean is very important to the overall health of the ocean and the animals that live within it.
Part of the conservation work MarAlliance does is educating the local community about sharks and rays. A large group of the Belizean people are fishers, so educating them is key.
One of the ways they do this is with their Kids Meet Sharks project. It introduces children and adults to sharks and rays and encourages a positive shift in attitudes towards these threatened animals. They first go to local schools and do a presentation about sharks and rays, educating the children on the biology of them, what threats they face, sustainable fisheries and how to appropriately interact with them when you encounter them in the wild.
Belize is home to at least 42 species of sharks and rays, so if you get in the water, you’re more than likely to encounter one. Proper etiquette is to view them from a distance, do not touch, and if there is food, stay at a distance from that food.
After the presentation, the children write a report on what they learned, the teachers grade them, and they pick the top 20. Those children and their teachers then get to go out with MarAlliance to visit Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley, which are protected marine reserves.
Even though they live in Belize, most of these students don’t know how to swim, let alone have ever seen a shark or stingray, so this is a real treat for them! Some were scared at first but with gentle encouragement, they all got in the water and were amazed at what they saw!
By the end of it, we could barely get them out of the water! It was truly amazing to see the wonder, joy and excitement the children and the adults alike all had!