Glover’s Reef Shark Survey May 2010

Posted on June 13, 2010
Written by: Jillian Morris

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Glover's Reef Atoll is located approximately 45 kilometers from the mainland of Belize and was established as a marine reserve in 1993. In 1996, UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage site and the World Conservation Society established a research station on Middle Caye in 1997.

Scientists and research teams from across the globe travel to this pristine ecosystem to study sharks, marine turtles, reef fish and corals. Middle Caye is also home to a Belizean Fisheries Department post, aimed at policing the laws set in place, through the establishment of a marine protected area.

Enforcing laws on the open ocean always poses a tremendous challenge. It requires substantial resources in the form of money, time and manpower. Even small areas are difficult to patrol and regulate. It is an ambitious challenge, but Glover's Reef is proving that it is not only possible, but is actually making a positive impact on the ecosystem.

Collectively, the operations that utilize the caye, strive to leave a minimal human footprint. This is done through the use of solar panels, wind turbines, composting toilets, rain water collection cisterns, recycling and composting of food waste.

My trip to Glover's Reef was two years in the making, as last year's trip was missed due to work conflicts. Dr. Demian Chapman, of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, invited Duncan Brake and I to join a research trip earlier this month. Needless to say, we were both extremely excited to finally be heading to this little piece of paradise, we had heard so much about.

Our team included Dr. Elizabeth Babcock, Dr. Ellen Pikitch, who is the Institute's Executive Director and SUNY Stony Brook professor, together with Stony Brook University graduate students Mark Bond and Martin Benevides.

Unless you have a private helicopter, the only ride to Glover's is by boat. Assembling our gear and personnel in the coastal town of Dangriga, we loaded our bags and donned our snazzy life vests. We were lulled into a sense of security by the calm waters surrounding the atolls close the mainland, but found ourselves crashing through swells as we hit the open ocean. Everyone disembarked completely soaked and happy to step on solid ground, but no worse for the ware. It is all part of the glamorous mystique that surrounds field work. We were warmly greeted by the station's staff, an eclectic mix of men and woman of all ages. It is really great to see the Belizean people so heavily involved in such an amazing resource.

The Institute for Ocean Conservation Science has been conducting this shark survey for each of the past 10 years, making it one of the longest running shark surveys in the world. The survey was the primary purpose for this expedition, but we were also there to film the work being done at the station and the people that make it possible.

Our schedule was set to be quite aggressive in order to complete as much of the work as possible. Arriving late in the afternoon, our work began immediately, as we prepped gear for an early start the next day. Our call time was 5 am, but even the person with the least affinity for mornings seems to come to life knowing sharks are in the immediate future.

The shark survey is achieved through the setting of scientific longlines on a series of established sites. The most dominant species are nurse sharks and Caribbean reefs. Larger pelagic species are in the region, but don't frequent the more shallow survey sites. The sharks vary in size from just under a meter to 2.5m, showing a dynamic range within each species. Standard workups were done collecting length measurements and DNA, determining the sex, inserting dart tags, removal of the hook and finally release of the shark. We also set deep longlines (850-1000ft) in the hopes of catching a Cuban night shark and deploying a pop off satellite tag.

Another technique has been implemented in the shark survey known as, "baited remote underwater video." BRUVS provide a noninvasive analysis of the animals in a region. A camera and a bait source are attached to a frame that can be lowered to the seafloor without damaging the environment. The camera films whatever animals are attracted to the bait for approximately 2 hours before being retrieved. Although not always, it is sometimes possible to determine the species, sex and a size estimate from the footage. This sampling method requires very little equipment and manpower while providing hundreds of hours of data from a larger study site. This system marks a fairly new approach for species sampling in this region and is currently being used for sharks, grouper and snapper.

Every ocean-based research expedition needs a captain; ours proved to be the heart of the project. Norlan grew up on the cayes and knows the waters like the back of his hand. The ocean runs through him and he can fix anything; crucial skills to have when you are in such a remote place. Hard working and passionate, he is a wonderful representative for the people of Belize and why their natural resources are worth protecting.

As researchers, we most often travel to locations that are not local and bring an outside perspective. Collaborating with the people that live and breathe the culture and environment, gives strength to the overall depth and impact of the work. It is no longer just outsiders coming in with a specific agenda, but a diverse group of people working together for a common goal. This collaboration, along with the hard work of the team over the years, seems to be the core element of the success and stamina of this project.

Our two weeks at the station were filled with long days and hard work. Setting and hauling longlines, tagging sharks, deploying and hauling BRUVS and filming when we could. We had a small crew, so everyone really put a lot of energy and heart into the work. I think we all came back with some newly developed muscles from our shark tagging workout, mostly due to the hauling of 1000ft of line on the deep sets. The work is extremely rewarding, so people, although exhausted, are left smiling as they eat dinner and try to stay awake until 8 pm. On one of the last evenings we were getting ready to head out to scout for a place to put a deep longline and everyone was pretty tired. It was way past our bedtimes, but we all wanted to catch a Cuban night shark, so we pushed on. Someone spotted a small lemon shark swimming around the dock and everyone was immediately energized like kids on Christmas morning. We scrambled thinking of a way to catch it and tag it, as there are not a lot of lemons seen in the area, but they are the species that launched the entire project. This energy and excitement is what carried the entire team through.

For me, there were 2 significant highlights of the trip. The first was catching, tagging and photographing a 72cm Caribbean reef shark. This was the smallest of this species that I ever seen and was such a perfect miniature copy of the adults. The second was being joined for an evening longline haul by Tisha, one of the chefs from the station. She watched from the back of the boat, not wanting to get too close. She was curious and excited, but still nervous because of the stereotypes that surround these animals. I made her promise that she would tag a shark next time I am there and I am holding her to that. It is always amazing to the see someone change their perception after they have had positive first hand experience with these animals. Through this, I hope Tisha gives snorkeling around the station a try and maybe even encourages her kids to do the same.

Glover's Reef, in my opinion, offers a model for other marine protected areas across the globe. The collaboration between science and fisheries management is proving to be an effective tool in the fight to protect the ocean. Healthy stocks of fish, coral and marine life, many endangered and threatened in nearby regions, are a true testament of the capacity for people to make change. We can make a difference in this movement to save the world's oceans; not all of the damage is irreversible. There is still hope and the people involved with Glover's Reef are living proof that we should hold onto it dearly and never stop fighting.


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