Protecting Unique Marine Habitats

Belize harbors a large stretch of the Mesoamerican Reef—the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. The waters surrounding the reef teem with life and are home to colorful corals, commercially important fish such as Nassau grouper and mutton snapper, as well as lemon sharks, nurse sharks and the world’s biggest fish, the whale shark.  

One of the Conservancy’s primary conservation goals here is to expand on its successful site-based work and complete conservation area networks at the national level and among MAR countries. In two important marine regions in Belize—the Southern Belize Reef Complex and Lighthouse Reef Atoll—our work has focused on strengthening management of marine protected areas (MPAs) and maintaining sustainable fisheries.

The Southern Belize Reef Complex

The Southern Belize Reef Complex (SBRC) stretches southwards from the northern boundary of South Water Caye Marine Reserve to the northern boundary of Port Honduras Marine Reserve, and south-eastwards from the coastline of Belize to the Sapodilla Cayes and the outer reef. 

The SBRC is characterized by its variety of reef structures and ecosystems considered the most biodiverse in the region. The SBRC encompasses four protected areas: Laughing Bird Caye National Park, Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve, Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserves, and South Water Caye Marine Reserve.

Spawning Aggregations: “Cloudy, Swirling Mating Dances”

Within the SBRC is the Gladden Spit Marine Reserve, located near the fishing village of Placencia. More than 30 different species of fish spawn here on nights near the full moon, coming together in cloudy, swirling mating dances. Gladden Spit is one of four critical spawning aggregation sites in the SBRC and the largest known aggregation in the Mesomerican Reef.

Whale sharks follow the fish to feed on the fresh eggs and cluster in large numbers, forming one of the largest gatherings of whale sharks in the world. The whale sharks continue to come as long as the fish spawn in these areas.

For generations fishers have followed the whale sharks and descended on these sites to feast on the seas’ fluid bounty. The Nature Conservancy worked closely with fishers, local and international non-governmental organizations and the government of Belize to identify 13 spawning aggregation sites in the country's offshore waters.

The Conservancy was instrumental in providing the Belizean government  with the data to legally protect these sites—now declared as no-take zones to allow sufficient time for fish to reproduce—and supports local partners in managing and monitoring these sites through the National Spawning Aggregation Working Group.

Managing Marine Areas for Fish and People

Gladden Spit is recognized by the conservation community as the most efficiently managed marine reserve in Belize. In August 2008, the Conservancy completed a Conservation Action Plan for the entire SBRC complex that will help expand patrolling efforts and foster greater collaboration through a comprehensive protected areas system for southern Belize.

In 2008, the Conservancy also led a fisher exchange between fishers from Belize and Jamaica to share ideas and best practices. Though they live in different parts of the Caribbean, fishers from the region face similar challenges—how to protect the waters they depend upon from threats such as over-fishing and pollution.

In Belize, the fishers’ lives have historically and culturally been intertwined with the sea. This is the only way of life many have known, passed down from previous generations. The Conservancy recognizes that, in the short-term, creating no-take zones can hinder the fishers’ abilities to feed their families if not planned properly.

The Conservancy has worked with local partner Southern Environmental Association (SEA) to train some of these fishers as certified dive and sport-fishing guides. Some of them are earning more through these alternate livelihoods and are helping convince their peers of the benefits of protecting spawning aggregation sites. As we focus on protecting natural resources, we also are addressing the immediate impacts on the people most closely affected by new management systems like no-take zones.

Lighthouse Reef Atoll’s Many Natural Wonders

Lighthouse Reef Atoll has some of the most intact reef ecosystems along the entire Mesoamerican Reef. It is home to the Great Blue Hole—one of the largest marine sink holes and a world renowned diving destination. 

This and Half Moon Caye are designated as part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System—a World Heritage Site and important marine tourist destination. Half Moon Caye harbors the last viable breeding population of white-phase red-footed boobies in the Caribbean.

Protecting Healthy, Resilient Reefs

Coral reefs are threatened by pollution, physical destruction and increases in sea temperature that result in coral bleaching. The Conservancy has pioneered a method called reef resiliency to protect those corals that can withstand bleaching events. 

In 2006, scientists from the Conservancy and other conservation organizations surveyed 140 sites in Belize to determine the effects of coral reef bleaching. Of these sites, 64 were identified as potentially resilient. The study also indicated that live coral cover has declined by almost half across Belize. Based on that research, the Conservancy began working with local conservation organizations and the government to build networks of resilient reefs across the entire reef and bring them under effective protection. These actions also protect whale sharks, endangered species and fisheries that rely on healthy reefs for survival.

To help ensure that the reef continues to provide food and shelter for the people, plants and animals that depend upon it for survival, the Conservancy is working in the Belizean stretch of the Mesoamerican Reef to:

  • complete a conservation area network, with a particular focus on bringing increased resource management to Central Belize, which includes Turneffe and Lighthouse Reef atolls;
  • establish a network of no-take zones and fisheries management systems in Central and Southern Belize;
  • test improved surveillance technology in Southern Belize;
  • develop incentives, regulations and land-use zoning mechanisms to address coastal development  by collaborating with governments to implement the Belize Coastal Zone Management Plan; and
  • create permanent finance mechanisms that cover the basic management costs of conservation areas and tap into new global financial mechanisms that support climate change adaptation.



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