Linking local knowledge and local hearts to save the sharks of Holbox Island

  • Sharks
Years funded
  • 2021
  • Active
Project types
  • Conservation
  • Education
  • Mar Sustentable Ciencia y Conservacion

Nadia learns about life in the sea, from those who spend their lives around the sea. Collecting Local Ecological Knowledge (LEK) about sharks, sawfishes, manatees and sea turtles, she connects this information with spatial data to understand Mexico’s marine biodiversity. Nadia is focused on Holbox Island off the Yucatan Peninsula in Quintana Roo. The island forms a coastal lagoon surrounded by mangroves (thought to be shark breeding grounds) with its seafloor covered by seagrasses. Holbox is a treasure trove of marine life that Nadia is intent on helping manage in the wake of rapid development.

Linking local knowledge and local hearts to save the sharks of Holbox Island

Nadia Rubio

Project leader
About the project leader

I founded and am the director of Mar Sustentable Ciencia y Conservación, A.C., a non-profit organisation that works to conserve marine life in Mexico’s Caribbean waters. I obtained my doctoral degree at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, and am currently researching how local communities exploit the near-shore areas of islands. With this information, I am developing a baseline trajectory of the diversity and accessibility of marine fauna, such as sharks, over time. I have been involved in numerous marine conservation research programmes in the Gulf of California and the Mexican...

PROJECT LOCATION : Mexico, Holbox Island
Project details

The Sharks of Holbox Island: Fostering the care for local nature through education and outreach.

Key objective

Promote community awareness and foster the importance of preserving sociocultural values for the conservation of Holbox’s and Chiquilá’s biodiversity, focusing on sharing shark’s local knowledge and their relevance to coastal habitats. Generate scientific data on shark biodiversity in the region by integrating people’s traditional knowledge and historical and archaeological data.

Why is this important

Environmental education efforts need to be widespread on islands as Holbox, which share a rich socio-cultural heritage associated with nature and face increasing human migration and tourism development, threatening local biodiversity. Since pre-Columbian times sharks were abundant and had cultural value in the region of Holbox. The local knowledge of Holbox´s sharks is fading into the island´s contemporary history. Environmental education can help locals and visitors understand and value of top predators for healthy and biodiverse oceans.


Tourism development and increasing landscape and coastal exploitation are dire problems for coastal communities globally. In many regions, knowledge of human-nature interactions is still scant, such as islands in Latin America. This matters especially in megadiverse countries, like Mexico, with increasing tourism and coastal development. An example is Quintana Roo in the Yucatan Peninsula, which has evinced growing tourism-based economic development for over 40 years. For my postdoctoral research, I studied the above problem on Holbox Island in Quintana Roo. Here together with an interdisciplinary team, we initiated generating baseline data on fisheries exploitation and tourist’s perceptions of the environment. Our results on fishers’ traditional knowledge, literature sources, and archaeological records were published in Marine Policy. Here we report sharks and rays were abundant on Holbox’s nearshore waters. Overfishing through the mid 20th century led to changes in coastal food webs, illegal fishing is widespread, and socio-environmental issues related to tourism development and large communal land sellouts exists. The latter has disrupted the long-term relationship islanders had with the sea. The SOS funding will allow to:

  • continue documenting changes in the biodiversity of sharks and sawfishes through time, and
  • generate diverse activities with the community and novel environmental education material to locally, regionally, and internationally communicate on the sharks of Holbox.
Aims & objectives

This project focuses on fostering shark conservation in the Holbox region. A site that transformed into a global touristic hotspot that faces environmental degradation, social conflict, overfishing, and very few environmental education programs. Few know Holbox’s coastal waters were populated with sharks. Holbox’s tourism development brought losses and changes in socio-cultural values related to local biodiversity conservation.

Project activities:

  • Shark environmental education activities for kids,
  • Shark conservation awareness via community events,
  • Collecting shark biodiversity data using our published methodology on traditional knowledge and integrating archaeological sharks data (records span over 2000 years) from our collaborations with the Costa Escondida Project,
  • Generate sound environmental education and scientific products for shark conservation. Our team’s connections with locals involved in conservation and the K-12 schools on Chiquila and Holbox will be crucial for disseminating and sharing our work to promote local nature knowledge for shark conservation.