During its 12th annual award ceremony held on Thursday, September 29th, 2022, Oceana recognized two extraordinary Belizeans as its 2022 Ocean Heroes. They are marine conservationist, Dr. Rachel Graham and marine ecologist, Dr. Leandra Cho-Ricketts. During the virtual presentation of this year’s awards, Oceana’s Vice President Janelle Chanona, shared, “The Belizeans we’ve been honored to recognize as Ocean Heroes are testament to the fact that when the odds are against us, that is when our resilience rises. That is when we are our strongest. That is when the hope we dare to grasp with both hands drives us forward. The 2022 Ocean Heroes we introduce to you now are front liners behind the scenes. They are the researchers crunching the numbers to tell the story, our story. As the videos showcase, their work is providing invaluable information, data that drives informed decision making...data that will make it so that we don’t just survive but that we thrive!”
Dr. Rachel Graham has been fascinated with the sea from an early age. Her journey in research started with her passion for marginalized animals including rays, sea turtles, and sharks. That passion took Rachel across the globe: her research in environment and development has been conducted in Latin America, Africa, and Micronesia. For twenty-five years, Rachel has worked with fishers and partners in Belize to identify threats, research needs, and conservation opportunities for threatened marine wildlife and their critical habitats. In 2014, Rachel founded the international NGO MarAlliance, to promote impactful and inclusive grassroots science and conservation of marine wildlife. Rachel’s commitment to marine conservation can be felt throughout the country, with more Belizeans being inspired to be actively involved in protecting ocean wildlife and coastal biodiversity.
Graham shared, “I think the biggest lesson for all of us is that conservation is a marathon. It’s not a sprint. And it takes many years to achieve these successes. And it’s taken 25 years of my life to get to some of the successes, and the knowledge, and the scientific discoveries that I’ve made. It gives me great pleasure to see huge changes also in the public in Belize, away from being scared of sharks – now being scared for sharks. Wanting to see more of this marine, wildlife species in our oceans. So critical to our ecosystems. So critical to our tourism industry. And of course, the resilience of our fisheries and our food security. When we’re faced with over 90% decline in big fish in our oceans, we need to fight for what we have left, and we need to re-wild our seas. I hope you will join us for this fight because it’s a big one, but it's one worth fighting for.”
Dr. Leandra Cho-Ricketts’ bond to the Caribbean Sea was immediate: the minute she locked eyes with the Belize Barrier Reef for the first time, she made a lifelong connection. Growing up in Belmopan, discussions about the reef were quite common in her household, which piqued her interest to study and learn about coral reef ecology and ecosystems management. Over the past two decades, Leandra has applied her expertise in marine sciences, to advance marine conservation and scientific research throughout Belize to advance academic interest and advance policies and regulations.
One of her key career achievements was back in January 2010, where she co-founded the University of Belize’s Environmental Research Institute, dedicated to building scientific capacity for the sustainable use and conservation of Belize’s natural resources. Leandra’s dedication to scientific research and marine resource management throughout the years has paved the way for new generations of Belizean marine conservationists, which helps to ensure the continued dependence, preservation, and restoration of our precious Belize Barrier Reef.
“I remember the first time I saw a video about coral reefs, I imagined myself being there, working in the water, and it wasn’t until I hit University that I actually got to see a coral reef so, it’s late in my life that I got into it. But from I jumped in the water and started snorkeling, I knew that that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was inspired - I think, to get into this field by the Belize Barrier Reef itself. What I always heard growing up was about the reef and really for me, that’s what I wanted to work on to help manage, to help protect. So, I guess over time, I’ve always been trying to work towards conserving, protecting, and managing the Belize Barrier Reef,” shared Cho-Ricketts.
The Oceana Ocean Hero Awards has honored more than twenty Belizeans for their exceptional accomplishments in ocean conservation, advocacy, and education. Past award recipients include Lionel “Chocolate” Heredia, Dr. Melanie McField, former Fisheries Minister Rene Montero, Lisa Carne, Jamal Galves, Miguel Alamilla, Captain Romauldo “Romi” Badillo Sr., Janet Gibson, Wil Maheia, Luz Hunter, Madison Edwards, Michael Heusner, Captain Earl David Jr, Guadalupe Lampella, Dale Fairweather, Neville Smith, the late Lowell ‘Japs’ Godfrey, Kevin Andrewin and Chef Jennie Staines.