Belize announces milestone reef protection plan

Belize’s government will crack down on illegal and harmful fishing and expand an area of protection for its ecologically vital marine reserve as part of a series of new measures to safeguard its marine resources and ocean ecosystems.

Marine protected areas are one of the most important conservation tools available to Belize. They ensure the conservation of Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System – a World Heritage Site – with its protective barrier reef, pristine atolls, sheltered seagrass meadows and rich marine life.  They’re also hugely important for Caribbean island’s fisheries and tourism industries and for local communities in terms of food security, national security and livelihoods.

Omar Figueroa, Belize’s fisheries minister, signed off the decision to expand Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve, a region off the coast of southeastern Belize, to seven times its original size, to 1,300 square kilometers (500 square miles).

In addition, the government entered into an agreement with the Coalition of Sustainable Fisheries and conservation group Oceana to help gillnet fishers transition to alternative livelihoods, with the aim of completely banning gill nets by 2022. There is substantial scientific evidence that gillnets have resulted in fish population declines worldwide, taking several fish species to near extinction.

The marine reserve encompasses the Corona Reef complex, which is said to have some of the healthiest coral reef systems in the world, with some shallow reefs maintaining more than 60% of coral cover, according to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) which helped orchestrate the expansion of the marine reserve.

While Corona Reef is located within Belize’s exclusive economic zone, it’s close in proximity to Honduras and Guatemala. In the past, the region has been threatened with transboundary illegal fishing.

But conservationists say they’re hopeful that the newly expanded marine reserve will help prevent illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and may even improve bilateral relations with these two other countries.

The region hosts rare coral species like the critically endangered elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), and “new” corals that have yet to be scientifically documented. The area also attracts and supports a number of rare species, including the critically endangered Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus), endangered whale shark (Rhincodon typus), and vulnerable blue marlin (Makaira nigricans).

The expansion of Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve means Belize will meet its international commitments to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Target 11, which calls for nations to conserve at least 10% of their marine ecosystems by 2020.

 “Government inherently has a responsibility to balance the use of our natural resources and the right of the people to a means of livelihood,” said Figueroa. “In deciding to phase-out the use of gillnets, the government, through the work of all partners under this agreement, aims to ensure that balance is met, by providing for alternative opportunities for those affected fishers as they transition away from gillnets and ensuring measures are put in place to safeguard the natural resource that belongs to all of us.”

Nic Requena, Belize program manager for EDF Oceans said Belize is leading the way in ocean conservation, especially in terms of managing its fisheries and marine resources.

“We applaud Belize’s long-standing commitment to protecting its ocean ecosystems…Our small nation has taken giant steps to ensure long-term viability of its marine resources, fishing and tourism industries — underscoring the importance of creating more resilient ocean habitats, particularly as the country is faced with the impacts of climate change.”

Take Action

Coral reefs are among the world’s most vulnerable but vitally important ecosystems. Rising sea temperatures, damaging fishing practices and toxic chemicals are wiping them out. We can help. Follow these 10 steps, explore the GOES Foundation for more information.

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