In the 600-mile-long Mesoamerican Reef, people are woven into the very fabric of the area's rich coastal and marine environments. Its coastline’s sandy beaches and azure waters are dotted with fishing villages, and its picturesque beauty draws thousands of visitors each year to the tourist epicenters Cancun and Belize.
More than 500 species of fish and marine species including large populations of whale sharks live in the waters of the reef. Thousands of artisanal (small-scale) fishermen depend upon healthy populations of grouper, snapper, conch and lobster for their livelihoods. Sport fishers also flock to the area in search of prized bonefish, tarpon and permit fish.
More than 60 species of coral form the reef including brain, elkhorn and black corals. It is also bordered by mangroves and seagrass beds, which together form feeding and foraging grounds for diverse marine species including sea turtles, sharks and dolphins.
Thus, healthy ecosystems here provide the foundation for both local economies and the region’s multi-billion-dollar tourism industry.
But this area is threatened by overfishing, pollution from human settlements and agriculture, sedimentation, inappropriate tourism practices and changing land uses along the coast. Climate change is causing higher water temperatures, sea-level rise, stronger storms and changes in the pH of seawater—all of which are pushing natural systems to their limits.
Making sure that the MAR’s coastal habitats remain intact can help stabilize beaches and reduce vulnerability from these threats. Thus, conserving marine ecosystems and addressing climate change impacts on local communities have irrefutably become the same goal.
What the Conservancy is Doing
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 for fish stocking and re-population—particularly in areas where huge concentrations of fish gather to spawn—throughout Belize;
- establish new fisheries management systems in Central Belize that can help fish populations recover while allowing artisanal fishermen to harvest these resources sustainably;
- test improved surveillance technology and build the capacity of local agencies to patrol protected zones 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 funding sources that support climate change adaptation.