Shark and Ray Conservation in Belize

Expedition Briefing


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The Research

Sharks are targeted in many maritime countries for their fins, meat, oil, skin, cartilage, jaws, and teeth (Dent & Clarke 2015). There is evidence of widespread collapse of exploited, unmanaged shark populations and currently, there are no documented examples of sustainably managed shark fisheries outside of New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the U.S.A. (Simpfendorfer & Dulvy 2017). Belize is a small Central American nation on the Caribbean Sea with low human population density that is bordered by 2 more populous and major shark-trading nations (Mexico in the North and Guatemala in the West and South; Dent & Clarke 2015). Belize has a moderate-sized seasonal shark fishery (November 1–August 30, but with a strong peak from November to Easter) that primarily exports product (salted meat, dried fins) to the Guatemalan and Honduran markets across the southern border (Zeller et al. 2011).

Shark meat is mainly consumed in these nations during the Catholic Lenten season (March-April), with the dried fins being re-exported to Asia for use in shark fin soup (Zeller et al. 2011). As shark populations are depleted in their waters, the demand for meat in Guatemala and Honduras is now being satisfied by new local fisheries targeting rays and a reliance on legal export of shark products from Belizean fishermen. Belizean shark fishers use monofilament gillnets and longlines to target sharks and there is emerging evidence that the fishery has depleted some species outside of areas where these gear types are prohibited, hereafter referred to as “protected areas” (Bond et al. 2012). It is imperative that we work with Belizean shark fishers to make sure their catches are sustainable and that protected areas (and other conservation measures) are effective. We also need to gather information on rays in Belize, given that the government recently acted on our suggestion to protect them throughout Belize.

Research Aims

We are addressing three major research objectives. The first is to determine if protected areas in Belize are an effective conservation tool for enhancing shark populations, which we are answering by tracking population trends in 3 such areas in Belize: Glover’s Reef, South Water Caye, and Gladden Spit and comparing them to nearby fished areas. The second is to investigate movements and fishing mortality rates of sharks and rays by tagging individuals in all of these areas. The third is to investigate the volume, species composition, and size composition of the shark catch. Once these data are analyzed we will communicate our findings to the public and policymakers, which will shape shark and ray conservation strategies nationally and regionally.

Importantly, we are collecting these data with shark fishermen in order to involve them in the process of managing the resource that they rely on. We are testing two predictions associated with the hypothesis that protected areas enhance shark populations: first, that sharks are consistently more abundant in protected areas than on fished reefs, and second, that abundance will increase or remain high and stable in such areas over time. We measure shark abundance at all of these sites using cameras placed in front of bait cages (baited remote underwater video stations or “BRUVs”). A bait cage contains one kilogram of chopped sardines, which attracts sharks, rays, and carnivorous fish. By counting the number of sharks and rays that swim into the field of view, we can estimate shark abundance and compare the results between sites and across years to test the predictions of our hypothesis. In addition, the BRUV data we collect are part of the Global FinPrint project (, which is the largest standard survey of sharks and rays on the world’s coral reefs. The Global FinPrint analysis will allow us to measure how the abundance and diversity of sharks and rays in Belize compares to reefs in other parts of the world. It will also enable us to determine what features of a coral reef determine how many sharks and rays live on it. Communication is also an essential part of the battle for conservation. We investigate local attitudes toward sharks and marine reserves, and use our BRUV footage to show local stakeholders, business leaders, and policymakers that protected areas have robust shark and ray populations. We aim to convince them that continued investment in these areas will benefit wildlife that are important for tourism.

It is important to understand the movements and fishing mortality rates of sharks and rays in Belize because both parameters are needed to estimate sustainable catch levels and for understanding whether or not protected areas are working (i.e., if fishing mortality is high and movements outside protected areas common, this strategy is not going to be effective). We will capture sharks and rays alive using research longlines and nets, working alongside local shark fishermen experienced with using these gear. We will tag and release all animals and they are recaptured (by us or fishermen) this will provide information on movements and fishing mortality. The fishers hired to work with us for this program will all substantially reduce their normal shark landings as a result of this alternative source of income, thus directly lowering the national shark landings to more sustainable levels.

Quantifying the volume of shark landings on a species- and size-specific basis every year are a fundamental requirement of conservation. There are a myriad of logistical obstacles hindering this type of data collection on a regular basis in Belize, leaving authorities with few management options. We have devised a new approach for collecting species and size composition data: Belizean shark fishers all submit one of the low-value secondary fins (anal fin) of all landed sharks to the Belize Department of Fisheries (BDF). BDF then provides us these fins for visual identification to a species level and species- specific regression equations are used to estimate their body size. So far, we have examined over 3,000 anal fins and found that ten species make up more than 90% of the catch (Caribbean reef, blacktip, Caribbean sharpnose, bonnethead, great hammerhead, tiger, scalloped hammerhead, lemon, bull, silky). We also find that Caribbean reef and blacktip sharks are primarily landed below the age-at-first maturity and are potentially overfished, while Caribbean sharpnose and bonnethead are not. We will continue monitoring these patterns over time to determine how they change with increasing regulations.

How You Will Help

You will assist researchers in the following activities:


Using longlines and nets, you will help capture sharks and rays. All large 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. Small sharks and all stingrays are brought aboard for workup. Some of the stingray workup will occur in shallow water, with staff members securely holding the animals in a large net. You will help with all facets of this process except the securing and final release of the animal, which will be carried out by experienced staff. You will also assist in the measurement of environmental data.


This involves maintenance of the units, transport by boat, deployment (using a rope and float), measurement of environmental data, and recovery of the units by rope and float. If time permits, BRUVs will be reviewed at the end of each sampling day. You will be trained in shark and stingray species identification.


This involves identifying, counting, and measuring dried anal fins from sharks landed by fishers and submitted to the Belize Department of Fisheries (BDF), coupled with data entry. These data will then be dispatched to BDF to be used in management decisions.

On this expedition, you’ll be based at Riversdale, approximately 20 km (12 miles) north of the town of Placencia, which is close to the South Water Caye and Gladden Spit protected areas.

The location where each team is located will be subject to change at the discretion of the scientists based on projected weather and sea conditions, for safety, and in order to maximize your time in the field. You’ll work on the same research, regardless of site. Riversdale is easily accessible by road from the Placencia airport and field site access is all inside the barrier reef and therefore sea conditions are relatively protected. Sharks and rays exhibit similar abundance at all sites, with higher species diversity expected from the Riversdale accessed-sites.

Life in the Field

Weather and research needs can lead to changes in the daily schedule. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding.

Activities will generally be divided into “home” and “away” categories. Home activities will include gear preparation, gear maintenance, bait preparation, and organization. Away activities will include BRUV deployment/retrieval, shark fishing, bait acquisition, receiver recovery or deployment, stingray fishing, accelerometer retrieval, and snorkeling (the latter is recreational/ educational in nature and not required). We are set up for all team members to be able to participate in all away excursions during their expedition if they are able, but it is not mandatory. A typical day would involve away activities in the morning between breakfast and lunch, with another away activity in the afternoon and potentially at night. Night activities are always optional.


Weather and research needs can lead to changes in the daily schedule. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding.

  • Day 1: Rendezvous at Maya Island Air (*NOT Maya Island Savannah Airport). 30-minute drive north to rental houses at Riversdale. Project briefing and training, social activity.
  • Days 2–7: Fieldwork with one day off (rainforest hike, snorkel barrier reef, art walk in town all possible).
  • Day 8: Departure from field site to Maya Island Air. Early morning departure from study site. The team will be at the airport by 10:00 a.m. International flights should not be scheduled before noon.

Accommodations and Food

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or single's accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.


Accommodations are dorm style and rooms will be divided by gender. All bedding is provided, including a bath towel, and rooms have electric fans. If families or couples want to stay in the same room, please inform Earthwatch in advance and we will try to accommodate your request. Please note that room selection is determined by the field station and rental house availability is not up to Earthwatch or the field staff.

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgement. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.


The Swaying Palms rental houses have their own showers with hot water and flush toilets toilets.


In Belize the standard voltage is 110/220 V. The standard frequency is 60 Hz. The power sockets that are used are of type B / G. Please note that electricity in Belize can be interrupted by weather conditions. All rooms have 24-hour electricity, electrical sockets, and an electric fan. 110/ 220 (Type B sockets).


Wireless Internet is available at the accommodations, but should be used sparingly. Cell phone service is possible, but volunteers will need to contact their providers in advance to discuss an international coverage plan.

Please note: Earthwatch encourages volunteers to minimize outgoing calls and immerse themselves in the experience; likewise, family and friends should restrict calls to urgent messages only. Emergency communications will be prioritized.


Variable, but usually 1–10 kilometers (0.6–6 miles). You’ll be transported to and from the field in a small boat.


Meals are served three times a day on a fixed schedule, with packed lunches available if necessary. You will enjoy mostly Belizean cuisine, complemented by a few non-local dishes.

We will eat all meals together, either indoors or outside at picnic tables. Breakfast is from 7:00 a.m.–8:00 a.m., lunch from 12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m., and dinner from 6:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m.


The following are examples of foods you may find in the field. Variety depends on availability. We appreciate your flexibility.

  • Breakfast: Bread or something similar (fried jacks, journey cake or johnny cake, cornbread, pancakes) with meat (ham, sausage, bacon) and a selection of fruit
  • Lunch: Pasta, chicken, pizza, fish, stewed beef with beans and rice, salad, or cooked vegetables on the side, dessert
  • Dinner: Similar options as lunch
  • Beverages: Water, tea, and coffee are available to drink. Some soft drinks are available for purchase. No alcohol is allowed at the field station. Safe drinking water is available at all times.

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut, seafood, or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your volunteer forms.

Special Note to Vegans: Please be aware that it is often difficult to accommodate strict vegans. It may be possible to get meatless meals but vegans may have a problem avoiding animal products altogether. If this is an issue, then participation on this Earthwatch expedition should be seriously reconsidered.

Project Conditions

The information that follows is as accurate as possible, but please keep in mind that conditions may change.


For weather and region-specific information, please visit and search for your project location.


We work from an open 20- to 25-foot wooden research vessel. There is no bathroom on board, but we can take bathroom breaks during the workday on nearby islands or in the water.

There is no canopy or shade on the boat, so shirts, brimmed hats, neck gaiters (or light scarves), and consistently re-applied sunscreen are essential.

The vessel has seats and safety equipment. We plan our research accordingly, and will adjust work plans so that the volunteers are comfortable with the sea conditions.

We lift equipment on and off of the boat (which involves lowering a 40-pound metal BRUV frame over the side). You may assist or opt out of this activity. Most of the items being lifted on and off the boat weigh less than five pounds.

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion.
  • Take an active role in one’s own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures at all times.
  • Be able to effectively communicate to the staff if experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds, often in close proximity, for the duration of the team.
  • Be comfortable being surrounded by a language and/or culture that is not your own.
  • Wear all protective equipment recommended or required by industry standards.
  • Work on a boat for approximately four to five hours per day with limited break options (e.g., there is no bathroom on the boat, except for the ocean or the islands where we will stop)
  • Maintain a seated, upright position within the boat during transit, which can sometimes be bumpy. This can be uncomfortable for individuals with back problems.
  • Enjoy being outdoors all day in all types of weather and in the potential presence of wild animals and insects.
  • Endure tropic (hot and humid) work conditions.
  • Be comfortable with living in and moving between remote study sites. 

Health and Safety


Project staff members are not medical professionals.

Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.


Please be sure your routine immunizations are up-to-date (for example: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) and you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and his or her doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations.

If traveling from countries or regions where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination.

Project Risks and Precautions


Minimal dangers given the terrain of the accommodations and coastal beach area. Wear closed-toe footwear (e.g.not flip flops) to avoid cuts. Tevas and Chacos are ideal for both island and boat conditions.


Sand flies (also known as “sand fleas” or “no-see-ums”) and mosquitoes are nuisances throughout the year. Sand flies are believed to be a vector for leishmaniasis in some regions. Some find them to be only irritating, but occasionally people have very bad reactions to the bites. Please come prepared with an oral antihistamine that you know you can tolerate, as well as a topical anti-itch cream. Those traveling from outside the Americas may have a more severe reaction to bites. To avoid sand flies, wear lightweight long pants and socks in the evening (they generally bite from the knees down). Mosquitoes may transmit a number of diseases, including malaria and zika virus, which are present in Belize (see the Safety section for more information). Repellents containing DEET work well against mosquitoes. To avoid them, also wear lightweight long pants, shirts, and socks in the evening.


Working with sharks and stingrays alongside or in a boat is inherently dangerous. All sharks and stingrays we work with are hooked in the mouth and are secured prior to the workup. Teams will be heavily supervised during this activity and will not touch sharks forward of their dorsal fins. Stingray spines will be removed by staff both for safety and for use as a scientific sample. The staff members have years of experience working with sharks and stingrays without incident.

Potentially dangerous animals that could be encountered while snorkeling include sharks, stingrays, sea urchins, lionfish, and jellyfish. Although rare, saltwater crocodiles have been seen. Staff will train you to identify dangerous species and to avoid touching any organisms. Those with a severe allergy to bee or wasp stings may have a similarly dangerous reaction to corals and jellyfish, and must carry an EpiPen at all times and notify staff of its location.


The Caribbean sun is very intense. Please bring plenty of good-quality waterproof sunscreen at several SPF levels. You will also want to bring after-sun lotion to soothe your skin after a long day in the sun. Some volunteers have found it helpful to bring long-sleeved, lightweight, quick-drying shirts and long pants to wear when not in the water (including on the boat between snorkels). A hat with a wide brim and a neck gaiter or loose scarf are recommended, as are polarized sunglasses and a chord to secure them around your neck. With the sun comes heat and risks of overheating and dehydration. Both can lead to illness. Drinking water frequently and minimizing exposure to the sun will help make your experience more enjoyable. Brief periods of intense rain are not uncommon during the field season so a sturdy rain jacket is mandatory. More extreme tropical storms and hurricanes traditionally occur from June through November with late August, September, and October as the most active periods. A hurricane plan exists and will be followed in the case of an extreme weather event. Because of the high humidity, people who use a hearing aid may find it doesn’t work properly. Consider purchasing a hearing aid dehumidifier.

For teams arriving in January, warmer clothing is necessary. Volunteers will be reminded each day about appropriate clothing requirements. In extremely windy/stormy weather, field activities will cease until weather improves.


We will be working with some sharp items (hooks) and bait (spines). Volunteers will be issued gloves and will be trained in the safe handling of these items.


Working aboard a small boat poses risks. Bouncing or jostling can be quite uncomfortable for volunteers with chronic back problems or a history of seasickness. Boat surfaces are wet and can be slippery, putting one at risk of falling and injury. You must be able to keep your balance on a rocking boat. Unplanned immersion in the water from falling overboard can also put one at risk of injury and/or cold related illnesses. The boats are equipped with appropriate safety equipment including life jackets for each person. Volunteers will be trained how to move around the boat safely. Sensible footwear (shoes, sandals), but not flip-flops, will be mandatory on the boat at all times.


Be aware that swimming may be possible during recreational time and typical water-related risks will be present, such as strong currents, jellyfish, etc. A certified lifeguard is unlikely to be available. A provided dive flag is required to be displayed from the dock or floated behind you.


There are inherent risks to snorkeling, including the effects of environmental conditions, nitrogen (for those who’ve recently been scuba diving), barotrauma, boat traffic, marine life, and other risks specific to your own physical/medical history. When snorkeling, it is important to learn to properly control your breathing to reduce the risk of hyperventilation and blackout. You need to bring and maintain your own mask, snorkel, fins, booties, and exposure protection (e.g., rashguard). Snorkel vests can be provided for those that either prefer them or are required to use them. It is critical that you ensure that all gear is in good working order and you are fully trained in appropriate response if a failure occurs while in the water. All snorkeling will be optional and conducted in groups, with rigorous practice of the buddy system. Each buddy pair will trail a dive float and our small research vessel with at least one Field Staff besides the captain will follow the group during the activity. If volunteers choose to snorkel during their free time on the island, they must do so in designated areas approved by staff and understand there is no lifeguard on duty. They should also practice the buddy system and take a dive float out with them. Typical in-water hazards include fire coral, sea urchins, jellyfish, occasional boat traffic, strong currents, dangerous bottom conditions (drop-off, mud), biting or territorial animals.

You are required to bring your own snorkeling gear (mask, snorkel, and fins), should you choose to participate. Please check your gear for functionality prior to your arrival as there are no dive shops at the field stations. Avoid bringing short swim fins; proper snorkeling fins are essential.


The nearest hospital is from 22–35 kilometers (13–21 miles) away from the project site by boat (depending on base location), and it may take up to two hours to arrange transport and reach the hospital. If you have a chronic condition which could require immediate medical care (e.g., heart conditions, kidney problems, severe asthma, etc.), or if you are pregnant, please discuss your participation on this expedition with your physician.

Travel Planning


Placencia Airport, Belize 

* Additional information will be provided by Earthwatch to meet your team. Please do not book travel arrangements such as flights until you have received additional information from Earthwatch.


Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.


Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination, and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and, again, 90 days prior to travel. Please apply early for your visa (we recommend starting 6 months prior to the start of your expedition). Refunds will not be made for volunteers cancelling due to not obtaining their visa in time to meet the team at the rendezvous. You can find up to date visa requirements at the following website:

If a visa is required, participants should apply for a TOURIST visa. Please note that obtaining a visa can take weeks or even months. We strongly recommend using a visa agency, which can both expedite and simplify the process.

Generally, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.


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  • Bernard AM, Horn RL, Chapman DD, Feldheim KA, Garla RC, Brooks EJ, Gore MA, Shivji MS. 2017. “Genetic connectivity of a coral reef ecosystem predator: the population genetic structure and evolutionary history of the Caribbean reef shark (Carcharhinus perezi).” Journal of Biogeography.
  • Fields AT, Feldheim KA, Gelsleichter J, Pfoertner C, Chapman DD. 2016. “Population structure and cryptic speciation in bonnethead sharks Sphyrna tiburo in the south?eastern USA and Caribbean.” Journal of Fish Biology 89 (5): 2219-2233.
  • Bond ME, Babcock EA, Pikitch EK, Abercrombie DL, Lamb NF, Chapman DD. “Reef Sharks Exhibit Site-Fidelity and Higher Relative Abundance in Marine Reserves on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.” PLoS ONE 7(3): e32983.
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  • Bond, M. E., Babcock, E. A., Pikitch, E. K., Abercrombie, D. L., Lamb, N. F., Chapman, D. D. (2012). Reef sharks exhibit site fidelity and higher relative abundance in marine reserves on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. PloS one 7(3), e32983.
  • Dent, F., Clarke, S. (2015). State of the global market for shark products. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper 590, I.
  • Simpfendorfer, C. A., & Dulvy, N. K. (2017). Bright spots of sustainable shark fishing. Curr. Biol. 27(3), R97-R98.
  • Zeller, D., Graham, R., Harper, S. (2011). Reconstruction of total marine fisheries catches for Belize, 1950-2008. In: M. L. D. Palomares & D. Pauly, eds. Too Precious to Drill: the Marine Biodiversity of Belize. Fisheries Centre Research Reports 19(6), 142-151. Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia [ISSN 1198-6727].




Shark and Ray Conservation in Belize Gallery


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