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Belize – The discovery of a new shark species in Belize waters comes as a reminder of the need to protect the waters around the Central American country, home to the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve system, the longest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere and a natural World Heritage site.

The Belize Fisheries Department and researchers from Florida International University (FIU) confirmed the presence of a new shark species belonging to the Bonnetheads type in waters off the coast of Belize last week.

Yet to be named, this species, which requires healthy habitats for nursery areas such as mangroves, serves as an indicator of the state of health of Belize waters at present. However, it also highlights the need for urgent action by the Belize government to strengthen protections for this marine biodiversity hotspot.

The Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage, which WWF is a part of works to protect the Belize Barrier Reef site from threats such as coastal construction, offshore oil exploration and drilling in country.

In October 2016 officials in Belize agreed to suspend the seismic portion of offshore oil exploration after an outcry from concerned citizens, national civil society groups and international conservation organizations and their supporters. While an encouraging move, stronger legislation for a complete oil ban is needed to ensure long-term protection and enable the site to be taken off the World Heritage ‘in danger’ list.

Louise Heaps, WWF-UK Marine Chief Adviser commented:

“This discovery is fantastic news, but it goes to show how little we still know about our oceans. The Belize Barrier Reef offers perfect conditions for some of the world’s most diverse marine ecosystems. Managing and protecting these ecosystems is essential to preserving not only known and undiscovered species, contributing to securing global biodiversity, but also benefits people through coastal protection, food security and livelihoods. If we don’t properly manage and protect this area and the wider oceans, we simply don’t know what we might be losing.”

Belize’s waters are a haven for 1,400 kinds of plants and animals, including rare marine turtles, rays, sharks and dolphins. More than half of the country’s population, around 190,000 people are supported by incomes generated through tourism and fisheries directly dependent on the reef.

Nadia Bood, reef scientist, WWF-Belize Field Programme commented:

“Bonnetheads don’t migrate very far, so the fact that they are found here indicates that the seas are good for them, with water clarity being a factor they favour. Discovering a new species of shark is another example that Belize Barrier Reef offers perfect conditions for some of the world’s most diverse marine ecosystems. This is exactly why WWF believes it is vital we do all we can to preserve this valuable part of our common natural heritage.”

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Notes for Editors:

The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.  However, in 2009, due to multiple threats emerging the site was added on the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage in Danger where it continues to remain. Threats identified by the World Heritage Committee have included unsustainable coastal constructions as well as oil exploration.

Over the past decade, much of WWF efforts has been on safeguarding the biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Belize Barrier Reef System. WWF has invested time and expertise on protecting and restoring natural habitats and nursery areas for a wide array of species, including flagship species such as sharks and marine turtles. WWF also works with the Belize Government to set in place policies to foster long-term protection for the coastal-marine ecosystem of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage Site.

As marine ecosystems are connected by ocean currents, their health is highly dependent on the conditions of the surrounding reef and waters, oil exploration close to the Belize Barrier Reef could irreparably damage it. An oil spill in Belizean waters could cause widespread environmental damage and have fatal impacts on marine life.

Over 260,000 people have written to the prime minister of Belize asking him to protect the World Heritage site. Learn more https://makeyourmark.panda.org/uk/belize