The Caribbean sharks education programme is aimed at fishing communities reported to be involved in the killing and illegal trading of whale sharks in Venezuela. It seeks to provide these communities with alternative, sustainable, biodiversity-based sources of income, while recognising their difficult living conditions. The programme includes school-based activities, public workshops and house-to-house visits with a view to raising awareness regarding the conservation status of whale sharks, and the need to participate actively, as a society, in protecting the species and marine ecosystems.
Venezuelan coast. Including the National Parks: Archipielago los Roques, San Esteban, La Restinga, Henry Pittier and Mochima and two Hope spots: Chichiriviche de la Costa (Vargas) and Chuao (Aragua)
The poaching and wildlife trade problem
Species affected Hammerhead Shark Sphyrna , Whale Shark Rhincodon typusProducts in trade
Shark fins, jawbones, vertebrae, liver, meat and eyes.
Overview of the problem
Poaching is carried out by members of fishing communities, who are attracted by offers from Asian citizens who have moved to Venezuela under economic cooperation agreements. Several private groups are involved in the illegal trade in shark products.
Communities are encouraged to poach sharks because it provides them with additional income. Most of these communities are very poor, and there is no surveillance or monitoring by the authorities. Before the implementation of the project, many whale sharks were illegally killed for their fins and other products. However, after stopping the illegal hunting of this species, a strong hunt for other protected sharks species began.
The anti-IWT initiative
The project is being led by the Shark Research Center (CIT for Spanish Acronyms), via a grant from the international organisation Ocean Care. The project’s main strategy consists of countering the offer of illegal income with other legitimate sources of income through the development of tourism-related activities as well as the provision of other services. The project also seeks to raise awareness of ecological issues in fishing communities.
Training workshops are run for fishing communities on the importance of ecosystem services and in particular the role played by sharks in marine ecosystems. In addition, educational and awareness-raising programmes are carried out in local schools, at workshops for fishermen’s associations and through personal visits made to communal meeting places, unloading ports and even individual homes.
The project focuses on promoting marine products and sustainable ecotourism. Ecotourism activities have been launched in areas where no such activities were previously available. Support has been provided to communities to design plans and services adapted to local conditions, and for subsequent implementation and promotion at a national level. In addition, free advertising, including covering graphic design costs, is provided for all community entrepreneurs wishing to use the whale shark as a logo.
Further income has been generated by the sale of red lionfish, an invasive species causing considerable damage in the Caribbean. This has been achieved by contacting high-end restaurants in the capital, where the red lionfish is considered a delicacy and has recently begun to command high prices.
Teams of volunteer scientists have been formed to help collect information of scientific value. Incentives for volunteers include the chance to attend national scientific events, free uniforms, recognition on social media and involvement in activities run by the Shark Research Centre.
Compensation is sometimes paid to fishermen for nets ruined or damaged by whale sharks. This has encouraged them to keep photographic and audio-visual records, and also helps to avoid the use of prohibited nets, which are not subject to compensation.
Local communities receive health support, and food and clothing have been distributed among the most in need, especially those actively involved in shark conservation.
This programme has also recently been extended to the protection of other endangered shark species, as the supply of income from the illegal sale of fins remains open. For this reason, some fishermen have directed their efforts to capture prohibited species, adapting their fishing gear and moving to new places where it is easier to catch sharks.
Some of those sites are nursery areas for various endangered species of sharks such as hammerhead sharks. These areas are protected by law but are not monitored by the authorities. Therefore, we are teaching local residents to develop ecotourism in these areas and we are helping them develop their own ideas.
Inclusion of gender, age and ethnic groups
This project is aimed at everyone in the community. Mainly it is a family and citizenship education program, we try to reach all people through different ways including their homes, educational centers, fishermen's associations, landing ports, churches, wineries, etc. Thanks to the fact that the localities are generally small, it is easy to involve all its components, women, men, children and the elderly. Older people are our source of information about what conditions were like in the past, fishing, the origin of their traditions and historical events related to biodiversity and its abundance. Their knowledge and anecdotes are incorporated in our conferences and workshops to the communities, in this way we contribute to promote respect and admiration for the elderly. In the process of education, there is constant emphasis that the conservation of biodiversity is a responsibility shared by all members of the family, the community, the nation and the world to ensure that we will continue to have a magnificent planet with abundant resources to everyone.
Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour
We form volunteer teams of citizen scientists who contribute to the collection of information of scientific value. These teams are trained during cycles of training workshops and conferences so that they are able to collect reliable data of value to researchers. Learn to take photographs for photo-identification, take correct measurements, determine the sex of animals, and make correct taxonomic identifications. Also, how to deal primarily with whale shark strandings, solve marine emergencies and ensure the protection of endangered shark species.
We invite experts to teach them how to face dangerous situations due to conflicts with traffickers. In this program, volunteers are encouraged through their participation in national scientific events, provision of uniforms such as T-shirts and caps, and recognition through social networks.
Health support is also provided to communities. Donations of clothing and food are arranged for those most in need, especially those who are actively involved in shark conservation.
The communities where illegal captures have taken place are made visible, in the media and on social networks, but highlighting all the positive aspects that they have, without mentioning the events that occurred in the past.
Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship
We help develop ecotourism activities in locations where they were not offered before. We promote their natural beauties, people and the services they provide on our social networks. We organize trips with friends to those communities and ask them to support tourism.
We provide support in the repair of damaged engines and boats or out of circulation due to lack of resources, to be used for the provision of tourist services on weekends, but that on other days are used to fish in places where they could not access before.
Income from renting rooms, chairs, umbrellas and non-motorized boats has increased.
New income has been generated through the sale of lionfish, which is a very damaging invasive species in the Caribbean. This has been achieved by establishing connections with exclusive restaurants in the capital city where the meat of this fish is highly appreciated, recently acquiring a high monetary value.
We also encourage them to offer meals prepared with this fish to tourists. To tourists we say "DO NOT eat shark, eat lion fish" (it sounds very good in Spanish)
Decreasing the costs of living with wildlife
We compensate for the loss of nets destroyed or damaged by whale sharks, this in turn encourages the increase in the photographic and audiovisual record of events that have scientific value on the part of fishermen. At the same time, it avoids the purchase of prohibited nets since they are not subject to compensation, it also discourages the placement of nets in prohibited areas, since a thorough investigation of all the facts must be carried out before compensation. If the activity was taking place in prohibited areas, they are not subject to compensation either.
Increasing livelihoods that are not related to wildlife
Support in the creation and adaptation of new inns for tourists and aquatic athletes, which respond to the demands of visitors in terms of comfort, cleanliness and respect for the environment.
Build/and or support sense of community ownership or stewardshipFurther detail
Graphic design expenses are covered and free advertising support is provided to all those community entrepreneurs who wish to use whale sharks as an image of their enterprise. This has managed to create a feeling of appropriation of the sharks by the communities, transforming them into the image of the locality.
Improving education and awarenessFurther detail
The main basis of the project are the education and awareness programs that are carried out in the schools and high schools of the communities through conferences and children's activities such as games and artistic expressions; workshops in fishermen's associations (in Venezuela established by law as Fishermen's Councils) and personally in ranches or landing ports and even in their homes.
Another mechanism is the placement of infographics and awareness campaigns through stickers, T-shirts and caps.
Has the initiative made a difference?
Because we have worked directly in the communities where the illegal whale shark killings occurred, the project has been very effective. Before its implementation, many adult whale sharks died from the illegal trade in their fins and other by-products in the last 5 years in Venezuela. This represents a great loss because whale sharks have a very low survival at birth, so that very few individuals manage to reach sexual maturity. These biological characteristics, overfishing and the deterioration of their habitats have caused a decline in the populations of whale sharks around the world, which is why they are included in the IUCN red list of threatened species in the category: “In Danger". On the other hand, hundreds of other threatened sharks were intentionally caught off the coast of Venezuela due to their gregarious habits. Many of these catches are made in national parks such as Los Roques Archipelago, which is a shark breeding area and fishing is totally prohibited. However, there is no adequate surveillance and control.
After almost 2 years of work, in the last 17 months there has been no report of any whale shark hunted in the entire country, nor has there been information on intentional mass catches of hammerhead sharks, even though some incidental catches and the fin trade of other shark species continues to take place in the national parks where we are present.
Another way in which the project has been effective has been in the change in attitude that has occurred in the people of the community in their relationship with nature. This change is particularly noticeable in school-age children and in many fishermen who have understood the value of making sustainable use of biodiversity to guarantee the permanence of the resources with which they subsist. They have perceived the value of living sharks because they have begun to make monetary gains that strictly depend on the permanence of the sharks on their shores.
To determine the effectiveness of this project, a process and product evaluation instrument is applied one month after each activity and one year after the program has started in each community. In this way, we can determine the success or failure of the project, not only based on concrete facts such as the decrease in illegal catches, but also the change in attitude in the target population, since this is the only thing that guarantees that the results are permanent.
What works and why
Education has been fundamental, since ignorance is the main enemy of conservation and in the case of our communities, most have a very low educational level with a high percentage of illiteracy. Some people have said that getting involved in this project has been the most important thing they have ever done in their entire lives and they feel very proud to be part of an international movement that pursues global goals. So we have learned that the most important thing for success is for the community to take ownership of the project objectives and identify with them through collective participation.
In these communities, “bulling” is a way of life that shapes the behaviour of the majority of the inhabitants, so it is very important to involve all members of the community, since otherwise there will always be a very strong collective pressure on people who participate and can easily lose connection with the project.
The collective construction of ideas for the development of the enterprise was vital, the proposals came from the community itself and those ideas were the ones that were the most successful, for example the new diving spots, boat rides and "taxi-boat" service. .
The other significant aspect is the alternative generation of economic income and this is much more effective when the income comes directly from activities with the species that are being illegally trafficked. Through the evaluation instrument, we were able to detect that people do not relate economic income in other ways that are not directly related to the species, such as the sale of food, the rental of chairs and umbrellas on the beach and other services. But most important of all is that people perceive that although the immediate benefits of ecotourism are less than those they can receive from the illegal sale of sharks to traffickers, these can only be received once, while the resources they obtain of live sharks can be sustained over time and benefit many families at the same time.
Factors for success
Sufficient time investment in building relationships and trust between the initiative and local communities
Devolved decision-making power so local communities have a voice in creating or co-creating solutions (as part of the initiative)
Effective and trusted community leaders
In the communities in which we stayed the longest, they were the ones that presented the best results. Strengthening ties of friendship, with long conversations about nature, have allowed us to provide personalized attention to the most influential members of the communities, clarify their doubts, better understand their points of view and understand the reasons why they act incorrectly.
The support of community leaders was very important, especially in those localities with high crime rates where the criminals themselves impose the law. Smugglers and small-scale drug traffickers use some ports we visit; so visitors are not welcome. In these cases, the accompaniment with local leaders allowed us to obtain “permits” to work in the area under the protection of “internal security”. In these areas, if “security” prohibits illegal captures, it is enough to stop them, since those who violate internal regulations can pay a very high price.
What doesn’t work and why
The first strategy that did not work was to try to reach everyone at the same time, since the call did not work for everyone and the approach to the issues had to be different for each group.
It also did not work to threaten them with legal punishments, or to repeat the law, since this has no effect on traffickers and, on the contrary, when they feel attacked, they can react negatively.
The generation of economic income through indirect means was also not perceived as a positive consequence of not catching sharks illegally.
Offering compensation for fishing nets damaged by sharks is the biggest challenge because it is difficult to clearly determine the facts and when a fisherman is not satisfied he can become an enemy of the project. Although this mechanism can save many whale sharks on certain occasions in localities, it can also be a source of conflict with communities.
Another challenge is to maintain the momentum of the project in the community when for some reason we cannot visit them very frequently, it is necessary to establish permanent communication mechanisms at least during the first 2 years of the project. It is difficult for a community to maintain motivation autonomously.
Organisers, donors and partners
Shark Research Center (CIT Venezuela), Ocean Care, Sustainable Innovation Initiatives, Society for Conservation Biology - Latin American and Caribbean Section; Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research, Fundación Conciencia Mexico, UICN-NL, Provita.
For further information contact Leonardo Sánchez (email@example.com).