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A Visit to Belize’s MPAs

| March 28

Gliding past a stalactite in an underwater cave 135 feet below the ocean surface was to say the least, surreal.  Sunlight fades and the ocean takes on purple-ish hue; the Blue Hole only looks that way from the surface. Marine life, at least the large fishes and corals, that many come to Belize to see are absent from the cave, a reminder that for all its beauty, clear, blue water is a result of low nutrient conditions. Corals live in a goldilocks zone of sunlight and nutrients. Too many nutrients and seaweeds grow over them, too dark and not enough food is generated by their photosynthesizing algae roommates. Pollution can lead to lots of threats for corals but warming, nutrient rich waters are increasingly problematic for corals around the globe.

The Blue hole formed during the last Ice Age and all its popularity as a dive site comes from its geology. Plunging into the Blue Hole has long been a dream of mine. It is the iconic diving site in Belize highlighted in my childhood by Jacques Cousteau, the renowned French oceanographer and filmmaker. The voyages of Cousteau and his Calypso team sparked my early passion for the ocean. Following them as they ventured the seven seas was exotic and compelling. Diving the Blue Hole is a unique experience that brought be closer to my childhood dreams. It is a perfectly circular hole with a diameter of ~ 1000 feet and a depth of over 400. The distinct blue color of the water, coupled with its geological features, makes it a fascinating and visually striking natural wonder. Returning to the surface the water’s blue azure transfixes you.

While the Blue Hole itself does not have the same abundance of coral reef life as other dive sites in Belize, it is a challenging dive destination that provides great allure for those seeking extraordinary underwater experiences.

Quick break in diving to visit the frigate bird colony (and the terrestrial hermit crabs!) on Half Moon Caye.
Quick break in diving to visit the frigate bird colony (and the terrestrial hermit crabs!) on Half Moon Caye.

Once you have traveled to the far-offshore Blue Hole, perhaps the best diving in Belize is found on the adjacent reefs and slopes of Half Moon Caye. Diving here with a brief stop on the Caye with my son and a visit to the local frigate bird colony made Half Moon Caye a highlight. The Belize Barrier Reef provides a phenomenally diverse range of underwater environments to explore. Here strong currents upwelling from the deep create an ideal environment for a variety of marine life. We encountered large schools of fish, including jacks, groupers, snappers, and barracudas. Friendly groupers, followed us around like hungry labrador retrievers, back and forth through breaks and holes in the reef slope. These reefs also attract eagle rays and reef sharks. The back side slopes steeply down walls into the blue abyss providing a tantalizing reminder of just how small we are in the big blue ocean.

As an ocean conservationist Belize is a destination that has been on my list of places that I have wanted to visit for a long time. Belize is recognized globally for its spectacular marine environment and its ocean conservation efforts. Just yesterday they made history by being the first Caribbean nation to ratify the high seas biodiversity treaty (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas beyond National Jurisdiction).

The Belize Barrier Reef is the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and the second largest in the world. In recent years Belizeans have taken important steps to protect and preserve their coastal waters and today the Barrier Reef is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Belize Barrier Reef is comprised of seven protected areas; Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve, Blue Hole Natural Monument, Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, South Water Caye Marine Reserve, Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, Laughing Bird Caye National Park and Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve. Along with the World Heritage Site, Belize has established Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) which cover 12% of its waters (one percent is in fully or highly protected areas that limit fishing, MPAtlas.org). These areas are designated for the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources, helping to safeguard the diverse ecosystems.

Ranger station at Hol Chan Marine Reserve.
Ranger station at Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

We also had the chance to dive Hol Chan Marine Reserve, located near the town of San Pedro, one of Belize's oldest and most famous MPAs. It has been crucial in promoting sustainable tourism and protecting marine life and tourists flock to this site to see nurse sharks and sting rays as well as sea grass beds. Our visit included sightings of moray eels, spiny lobsters, queen conchs and wide variety of coral reef fishes. The reserve limits the number of visitors, which when we visited numbered in the dozens and seemingly everywhere in this relatively small MPA.

Belize has enacted legislation and regulations to govern other activities in its marine environment, including fishing and development. These measures aim to ensure that human activities do not harm the marine ecosystems and promote sustainable practices, and Belize places importance on involving local communities in conservation efforts. By engaging with and educating residents, the country aims to build a sense of responsibility and promote sustainable practices among those who depend on marine resources for their livelihoods. Belize has also taken steps to regulate and restrict bottom trawling particularly in sensitive areas such as coral reefs and seagrass beds. Bottom trawling is a fishing method that involves dragging a large net along the seafloor, and it has been associated with severe environmental impacts, including habitat destruction and the bycatch of non-target species.

After a few days spent visiting Ambergris Caye we traveled across the wide expanse of water to offshore and picturesque Turneffe Atoll which is the largest and most biologically diverse atoll in the Western Hemisphere. This Atoll is a large multiple-use MPA managed by the Turneffe Atoll Trust. Managers here employ several strategies to protect and conserve the area, including: research and ecological monitoring to better understand the marine ecosystems; advocacy to raise awareness about the importance of marine conservation and the ecological significance of Turneffe Atoll; stakeholder engagement and outreach to build partnerships to help implement effective conservation strategies;  involvement with local communities to develop sustainable fishing practices, responsible tourism, and alternative livelihoods to reduce pressure on the marine environment; and policies advocacy to support the implementation of these practices.

While visiting the spectacular crystal blue waters of Turneffe Atoll and exploring its coral reefs with the aid of naturalist Abel Coe, we witnessed majestic spotted eagle rays gliding across the shallows, reef sharks, spectacular corals, including a few remnant elkhorn corals and many sea plumes. Elkhorn corals were once the most abundant coral in the Caribbean, but today populations are down by over 90%. Abel proudly listed the accomplishments of conservation efforts around Turneffe Atoll, (for example an end to shrimp trawling) while still recognizing the balance with local fishermen whose livelihoods depend on lobster and conch.

Fish whisperer Abel Coe, our guide to all things at Turneffe Atoll.
Fish whisperer Abel Coe, our guide to all things at Turneffe Atoll.
Turneffe Flats resort.
Turneffe Flats resort.

Back on dry land the final highlight of my visit was meeting Craig Hayes, chairperson of the Turneffe Atoll Trust and an unsung conservation hero. Craig has run Turneffe Flats, an eco-resort on Turneffe Atoll for decades and maintains a keen eye on the area, investing in the people and environment. The Turneffe Atoll Trust has been working to conserve the region and maintain not just the rich biodiversity of the area, but aid Belizeans in creating sustainable livelihoods for generations to come. Challenges remain and the work never ends.

In coming years Belize will face increasing demands of human populations and accelerating climate change. Nature-based solutions such as marine protected areas and restoration efforts will need to be expanded. The current level of fishing may well be unsustainable as increasing tourism demands more seafood such as groupers, conch, and the prized spiny lobster. There are no easy solutions. Like other nations, Belize has committed through the Convention on Biological Diversity to protect 30% of its waters in MPAs. This is an ambitious goal, but necessary to ensure a healthy ocean future for Belize. Ensuring their marine protected areas are effective is critical. Our Blue Parks initiative provides a framework for ensuring implementation and conservation success. To date two Blue Parks exist in the nearby Caribbean waters that can provide examples of effective conservation: Colombia’s El Parque Nacional Natural Old Providence McBean Lagoon and Cuba’s Parque Nacional Jardines de la Reina.