By Emily Fisher
Photos © 2009 Tony Rath of Tony Rath Photography – http://tonyrath.com
In 1842, in his study of the evolution of coral reefs, Charles Darwin declared that Belize was home to “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies.” More than 150 years later, that spectacular reef is increasingly threatened by overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and climate change. Oceana announced plans this summer to open its first Central American office in the country to help protect and preserve Belize’s unique reefs.
The Belize Barrier Reef is a 186 mile-long section of the 560 mile-long Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which stretches from the northeast tip of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to Amatique Bay, Guatemala, making it the second largest coral reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Belize is home to three of the Western Hemisphere’s four rare offshore atolls, which are circular reefs surrounding a central lagoon. One of the country’s most famous attractions, the Blue Hole, is part of Belize’s Lighthouse Atoll. A mecca for divers, the Blue Hole is a sapphire-blue submarine cave more than 300 meters wide and over 120 meters deep.
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 and ocean acidification form a dangerous duo for coral reefs, causing coral bleaching and inhibiting their ability to form shells.
In addition, the reef ecosystem is threatened by the overfishing of species such as snapper,
grouper and the reef-cleaning parrotfish. And while many of Belize’s fishermen practice artisanal methods, including diving for conch and lobster, destructive gillnets are also common. Shrimp trawl nets drag over the seafloor, creating an enormous amount of bycatch and damaging habitat.
The new vice president of Oceana’s Belize office, former journalist and attorney-at-law Audrey Matura-Shepherd, has a deep affection for her native country’s marine habitat – and knows that Belize’s reef is one of its greatest natural resources.
“We need to protect our resources for tourism,” she said. “People visit Belize because they hear about our diving spots and our reefs. Foreign currency is very important to the continued survival of a healthy economy.”
While many scientists and NGOs in the region have recommended policies to achieve healthy fisheries and reefs, the government has yet to adopt them, Matura-Shepherd said.
“Belize is blessed with a wealth of marine treasures,” said Andrew Sharpless, CEO of Oceana. “With Ms. Matura-Shepherd’s leadership, Oceana is poised to help protect these incredible reefs for future generations.”
Introducing Audrey Matura-Shepherd
Audrey Matura-Shepherd, the vice president of Oceana's new office in Belize, is a well-known public figure in the tiny Central American nation. She began her career as a journalist, culminating in a weekly network television talk show. She later became an attorneyat-law and served as a senator from 1998 to 2000 as a member of the opposition party. She speaks English, Spanish and the local Belizean Kriol.
Have you witnessed the degradation of Belize's reefs?
I recently went snorkeling near Caye Caulker at the famous stingray alley. There are normally nurse sharks, and there were none, and there were fewer stingrays than usual. The nearby reef just wasn't full of the fish life it used to have. I also saw damaged corals and coral bleaching. The last time I went was two years ago - in two years alone I could see the damage.
When I used to go swimming and diving at many differentplaces throughout the country, especially at my native Corozal, by the bay, I could see clearly without goggles. Now we can't do that, it's muddy, mucky and stagnant.
Growing up in Belize, did you spend a lot of time in the ocean?
My first recollection of swimming was when I was three years old and my dad just threw me in the water. You just had to survive - that's what was done to all of us; it was normal. Being next to water makes me happy and keeps me grounded, and I want our ocean to be a healthy source of life and economic prosperity for my Belizean people.