Sharks are important for healthy reefs

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Scientists and conservationists alike know that when it comes to conserving and rehabilitating marine life - from corals to sharks to penguins and everything in between - a must-have step is creating marine protected areas (MPAs). Sylvia Earle, one of the most famous scientists and advocates for our oceans, even dedicated her TED Prize wish to boosting MPAs. But just how should an MPA be structured so that it is effective?

The New York Times reports that at Glover's Reef in Belize, one protected reef is forming a perfect model for conservation across the globe.

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The Wildlife Conservation Society is sponsoring a reef monitoring program lead by Alex Tilley, a station manager and resident scientist on Middle Caye, one of six small islands within the Glover's Reef atoll. The work that he and fellow conservationists are doing in monitoring the sharks and rays of the area are proving to be an ideal way to ensure the health of a reef. They feel that Glover's Reef - Belize's largest "no-take" marine reserve, and about 20% of the wider 87,000-acre Marine Protected Area here - is a test case for how similar reserves can be shaped.

While shark populations around the globe have dropped, the populations in Glover's Reef have remained stable. Studies show that a healthy shark population means a healthy reef population, and a healthy reef population means a healthy human population. Specifically, the sharks keep Glover's Reef barracuda population under control, which allows algae grazing fish to keep the corals clean and healthy.

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While it can take decades to see a coral reef recover, marine protected areas are indeed making a difference. The Great Barrier reef is a larger example, where thanks to protected areas, the damaged parts of the reef are recovering.

The no-take zone policy and monitoring of species is what makes Glover's Reef a model for other areas. Enforcement to discourage poaching is needed, but a new observation tower as well as educating people about the dire situation of the reef are helpful.