The removal of apex predators like sharks is one of the most prevalent and devastating human impacts on earth’s marine ecosystems. Overfishing and the use of indiscriminate, destructive fishing gear like gillnets is far-reaching. Sharks are becoming increasingly rare throughout most of the Belize Barrier Reef and this decline presents a major ecological and economic problem for Belize.
We know very little about the specific roles of sharks in Caribbean coral reef ecosystems, but current models and theories suggest that their loss causes ripple effects throughout local food webs and could lead to reef collapse.
With sharks and reef systems under similar threats worldwide, there’s an urgent need to develop a better understanding of the roles sharks have within reef ecosystems and whether protected reef areas are effective in helping populations recover. A goal of the project is to better describe the niche of the dominant shark species on the Belize Barrier Reef, including Caribbean reef, nurse, Caribbean sharpnose, great hammerhead, blacktip, lemon, silky, night and tiger sharks. Since no studies of shark abundance have ever been conducted before and after the establishment of a marine reserve in Belize, we have a rare opportunity - with your help - to significantly improve the management of these protected areas by observing their impact.
This opportunity is especially significant for Belize, where ongoing efforts to build a comprehensive network of marine reserves take place against a backdrop of increasing shark exploitation. Although Belize has 13 marine protected areas, not all of them include no-take marine reserves and several of them still allow longline and gillnet fishing for sharks inside or very near their borders. Showing whether and how the marine reserves in Belize are useful for shark conservation will be decisive in consolidating the existing marine reserve network and improving it over time. Working closely with local partners in the Wildlife Conservation Society-Belize and providing data to Belize’s Fisheries and Tourism Departments, as well as the Association of Protected Area Management Organizations, the scientists working on this project will be able to use your efforts to bring about real improvements in shark and reef conservation.
You’ll assist with the deployment, recovery, and maintenance of hook-and-line shark fishing gear in various locations at the Glover’s Reef study site, as well as in the measurement of associated environmental data like water quality, salinity, and pH. You’ll help the researchers tag, take tissue samples from, and release captured sharks. (All sharks are firmly secured to the side of the research vessel prior to data collection and are kept in the water for the whole procedure. Volunteers will be involved with all facets of this process except the securing and final release of the animal, which will be carried out by experienced staff.) You’ll also help collect shark tissue samples within several different habitats, from local fishermen’s catches, and from your own handline fishing and seine-netting. You will also conduct snorkel surveys to record habitat type, as well as abundance and diversity of coral and fish species. This data on the status of the reef will be collected for each site where a video is deployed, to allow comparisons between different habitats.
You’ll have opportunities to interact with tourists and Belizeans throughout the project to help assess their attitudes toward sharks, reefs, and marine reserves, helping produce, distribute, and score written questionnaires and add them to the database. You may also help transcribe video interviews.
Meet the Scientists
Dr. Demian Chapman
School of Marine & Atmospheric Science
Stony Brook University, NY, USA
Dr. Chapman is an internationally recognized shark expert who has been working on shark research and conservation projects in Belize for nearly a decade. He is a molecular ecologist and field biologist, and an expert in the integration of telemetry tracking into research on shark dispersal and reproduction. He’s the author of more than 20 scientific articles and has managed field research projects on sharks in The Bahamas, his native New Zealand, and Florida. He received his undergraduate degree in zoology and ecology from Victoria University in New Zealand, and his masters and PhD (Oceanography-Marine Biology) from Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center, FL, USA.
Dr. Elizabeth Babcock
Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science
University of Miami, FL, USA
Dr. Babcock is a quantitative fisheries scientist, with experience in fisheries stock assessment and marine fish conservation, for species including sharks, billfishes and sturgeons. Using innovative data sources and analysis methods to inform management of fisheries for which traditional fisheries data are lacking is a primary focus of her research, with an increasing emphasis on marine reserves and the ecosystem impacts of fisheries.
She has an undergraduate degree in Biology and Environmental Science from the University of California, Berkeley, and received her PhD from the University of Washington's School of Fisheries. After completing her PhD, she worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) as the first Constantine S. Niarchos Fellow in Marine Conservation, and did a project on bycatch of endangered Humboldt penguins in the gillnet fishery out of Punta San Juan, Peru. She then served as Chief Scientist for the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, which is now the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science.