Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve in Belize Shows Caribbean Reef Sharks Can Benefit from Marine Protected Areas

Photo copyright Alastair Pollock

Photo copyright Alastair Pollock

Caribbean reef sharks serve an important role as top predators in the ocean and help shape coral reef communities in the Caribbean. They maintain a balanced ecosystem by preventing the overpopulation of certain prey species and help stop disease outbreak by preying upon the weak, sick individuals within a population, thereby strengthening the gene pool of prey species. Removing sharks from the ocean can disrupt this delicate balance and threaten the health of the coral reef ecosystem.

Scientists from the United States and Belize studied Caribbean reef sharks for 5 years at Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve (GRMR), a remote atoll off the coast of Belize. Through the use of baited underwater cameras dubbed “chum cams”, the scientists found many more (4 times as many) reef sharks inside the reserve compared to nearby unprotected areas. There may be a number of reasons explanations. One is that the reserve protects sharks from fishing pressure, allowing them to thrive unharmed inside the MPA. Another is that there may be more food available within the reserve. However, the evidence is clear: MPAs can protect a large, top predator.

That finding also has wider implications for coral reefs, one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world. Scientists are studying the behavior of Caribbean reef sharks to see if their conservation would result in additional positive impacts for reef systems. Regardless, a growing body of research exists to support the claim that protecting keystone species can have cascading benefits for a healthier ocean.

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