Protecting and Celebrating the Belize Barrier Reef

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Belize is fringed by a vibrant expanse of living coral, known as the Mesoamerican Reef System. It’s a Caribbean underwater paradise—a snorkeler’s dream and an endangered sea turtle’s lifeline. Stretching from Mexico to Guatemala, it includes the world’s second-largest barrier reef, behind the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. While Belize bestowed strict protections on sea turtles in 2002, they can’t survive without coral and seagrass. Ultimately, conservation that benefits turtles boosts the health of the entire ecosystem.

The Belize Barrier Reef became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, and today WWF is pushing for better management of this ecological treasure. The atolls, sand cayes, mangroves, and coastal lagoons are home to 70 hard corals, 36 soft corals, 500 fish species, and three types of nesting sea turtles. While poaching remains a direct threat, turtles face an ongoing onslaught from climate change and an uptick in coastal development.  But WWF’s persistent pressure for nesting site protection, and cutting-edge reef restoration projects like the coral fragments being planted at Laughing Bird Caye, are working. Belize’s turtle populations are stabilizing—and in some spots, they’re growing. Great hope rises as more egg clutches per female are counted each season. Nest monitoring is a long-haul project, especially as half the country’s population relies on the reef for their livelihoods. But right now, more green turtles, loggerheads, and hawksbills are emerging from Belize’s shell of conservation.

 

A Lifeline to Sea Turtles

Sea turtles are a fundamental link in marine ecosystems. They help maintain the health of seagrass beds and coral reefs that benefit commercially valuable species such as shrimp, lobster, and tuna. Sea turtles are the live representatives of a group of reptiles that have existed on Earth and traveled our seas for the last 100 million years. Turtles have major cultural significance and tourism value.

The presence or loss of sea turtles is a good indication of the level of interaction between humans and our coastal ecosystems. Marine turtles use coral reefs and seagrass beds for foraging, beaches for nesting, and oceans and seas for migrating within and between countries. The interconnected nature of these ecosystems facilitates turtle movement. In Belize specifically, beaches and marine ecosystems are used year-round, including within marine protected areas and World Heritage sites.

© Antonio Busiello/WWF-US

There are three species of marine turtles commonly encountered in Belize’s waters: hawksbill, loggerhead, and green turtles. Belize’s waters including marine protected areas and World Heritage sites are believed to be important regional foraging grounds for the three turtle species.

World Wildlife Fund has been working hard to ensure the survival of this important species by eliminating sea turtle bycatch from fisheries, reducing the unsustainable harvest and illegal trade in sea turtles, and stemming the loss of critical sea turtle habitats. Many of these objectives are achieved by establishing and strengthening protected areas around nesting beaches, raising awareness and promoting ecotourism, lobbying for turtle-friendly fishing practices, and more.

 

An Exciting Feat: UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger

In 2018, Belize’s incredible barrier reef is removed from UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger. The historic decision after a World Heritage Committee meeting in Bahrain, just five months after the Belizean government imposed a moratorium on oil exploration and drilling in all of Belize’s offshore waters—a landmark piece of legislation that protected critical ecosystems and established the country as a new world leader in ocean conservation.

Comprised of seven protected areas, Belize’s Barrier Reef System is part of the Mesoamerican Reef System, the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, and is home to nearly 1,400 species, from endangered hawksbill turtles to West Indian manatees, stingrays, coral, and six threatened species of sharks.

Fish and reef. Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Ambergris caye, Belize, Central America.

© Antonio Busiello/WWF-US

Nearly 200,000 people—more than half Belize’s population—rely on the reef to live. Reef-based tourism and recreational activities provide vital sources of income and account for an estimated $200 million of Belize’s GDP, while commercial fishing contributes about $15 million. The reef also provides important natural protection against damages from extreme storms along the coast.

In the last decade, exploration for oil, development along the coast, and a lack of strong regulations have posed increasing threats to the fragile ecosystem. The reef site was added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger in 2009 due to the threat of irreversible damage from harmful coastal construction and oil exploration.

Within the past years, more than 450,000 people from around the world joined WWF and other organizations—including Oceana, the Belize Tourism Association, Belize Audubon Society, and Belize Institute for Environmental Law and Policy—to campaign against proposed oil exploration near the World Heritage site. They signed petitions, wrote letters, and used social media to urge the country’s government to secure the long-term protection of the barrier reef. Their hard work paid off.

In December 2017, Belize agreed to put an end to oil exploration in its waters and began to secure the region against immediate threats—a critical step towards protecting the reef, its species, and the people who rely on it. Belize is now just one of three countries in the world with such legislation.

World Heritage sites belong to all of us, and together we must remove the dangers they face, and continue with all our might to protect these natural conservancies so that sea turtles and the immense number of other species can continue to survive and thrive.

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