Roughly the size of New Jersey, Belize has one of the lowest population densities in the world. Despite its small population, the country’s marine resources are not immune to environmental degradation.
In November 2008, Healthy Reefs for Healthy People, an international, multi-institutional effort studying the Mesoamerican Reef, released its first comprehensive health assessment.
Of the 140 Belizean sites the group tested for reef health, 53 percent were rated “poor” and 39 percent were “fair,” leaving only 3 percent in “good health” and none in “very good health.” The report concluded that even Belize’s remote offshore atolls are no longer pristine.
Further confirming the trend, in late June, the Belize Barrier Reef was added to the UNESCO list of endangered World Heritage sites.
So what’s making the Belize Barrier Reef sick?
Unregulated coastal development is destroying the country’s mangrove forests, which prevent erosion, provide nursery habitat for many fish species and help filter pollutants and trap sediments that can kill seagrasses and reefs.
Meanwhile, climate change (link) and ocean acidification (link) form a dangerous duo for coral reefs, causing corals to bleach and inhibiting their ability to grow.
In addition, the reef ecosystem is threatened by the overfishing of species such as snapper, grouper and the reef-cleaning parrotfish (links). And while many of Belize’s fishermen practice artisanal methods, including free diving for conch (link) and lobster (link), destructive gillnets (link) are also common. Shrimp trawl nets (link) drag over the seafloor, creating an enormous amount of bycatch (link) and damaging habitat.
While many scientists and conservationists in the region have recommended policies to achieve healthy fisheries and reefs, the government has yet to adopt them.