What can we learn from the news that the Belize Barrier Reef is no longer on the UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger list?

Photo by  Yanguang Lan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Yanguang Lan on Unsplash

In his book Coral Reefs of The World, Charles Darwin called Belize home to “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies”. In 1996 the UNESCO designated the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System a World Heritage Site, with the former British colony responsible for its protection. The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System is a wonderful natural system consisting of the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, offshore atolls, several hundred sand cays, mangrove forests, coastal lagoons and estuaries. By 2009, the site was on UNESCO’s “World Heritage in Danger” list, due to concerns over excessive development, mangrove cutting and oil exploration in the region. At the end of June, the UNESCO’s heritage committee voted to remove the Belize Barrier Reef from its list of threatened sites because it no longer faces immediate danger from development.

What led to this decision?

Fanny Douvere, the coordinator of the marine program at Unesco’s World Heritage Centre, attributed the decision to the fact that “In the last two years, especially in the last year, the government of Belize really has made a transformational shift”. The shift she refers to includes a landmark moratorium on oil exploration in Belizean waters that was adopted in December 2017- making Belize one of only three countries in the world with such legislation - and the introduction of legal protections for coastal mangrove forests. The Government decision to ban oil exploration has been heavily influenced by a public outcry that followed the discovery, in October 2016, that seismic testing was happening only a kilometre off the reef. Oceana, an international NGO focused solely on oceans preservation, led the protest and, together with a coalition that included the WWF, Belize Tourism Industry Association, Belize Audubon Society and Belize Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, launched the “People’s Referendum” by staffing 51 polling stations across the country. Almost 30,000 people voted, with 96 per cent of voters supporting a permanent ban on offshore oil. Belizeans understood that an oil spill would destroy their unique ecosystem and the country’s economy. Thirty-five percent of all jobs in Belize depend on tourism, much of it centred on sport fishing, scuba diving and other activities that rely on a healthy ocean. Another 15,000 are tied to the seafood sector - huge numbers in a country of just 400,000 people. The protection of nature and the ecosystem on which Belizeans people depend became the priority. According to Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF-International “The journey of Belize’s removal from the “in danger” list shows that when governments, international institutions and civil society work together, it is possible to avoid harmful activities that threaten our planet’s unique places in favour of sustainable alternatives that will secure a prosperous future for all.”

The Great Blue Hole is a giant marine sinkhole off the coast of Belize. It lies near the centre of  Lighthouse Reef , a small atoll 70 km from the mainland and Belize City. The hole is circular in shape, 318 m across and 124 m deep. Photo by Brian J. Skerry, National Geographic Creative.

The Great Blue Hole is a giant marine sinkhole off the coast of Belize. It lies near the centre of Lighthouse Reef, a small atoll 70 km from the mainland and Belize City. The hole is circular in shape, 318 m across and 124 m deep. Photo by Brian J. Skerry, National Geographic Creative.

But does it mean that the Belize Barrier Reef is not in danger?

Unfortunately, no. There are still big battles ahead for Belize’s reef. Overfishing, irresponsible coastal development and especially climate change remain major concerns. It was always assumed that the Belize Barrier Reef was safe from bleaching due to rising temperatures, however scientists report having observed signs of coral bleaching on the Belize reef too. Bleaching occurs when unusually warm water causes the corals to lose plant-like organisms that help keep them alive. Alarmingly, in 2015 and 2016, almost a quarter of the corals off the Belizean coast were affected by bleaching, according to a report by the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative, an organization that monitors reefs. Although coral restoration initiatives performed by researchers and local NGOs demonstrate positive results and show that, under the right conditions and given time, the ecosystem can be restored, global warming remains a serious threat. Further, the problems of overfishing and illegal fishing remain complex issues that need addressing. Last year, Belize’s cabinet approved the new Fisheries Resources Bill, which is described as one of the most modern and comprehensive pieces of legislation for small-scale fisheries which contains measures that provide a much stronger legal foundation for a comprehensive ecosystems-based approach to sustainable fisheries management. The Bill is yet to be approved by the House of Representatives, but if turned into law it should support marine life and preserve the ecosystem. Illegal fishing , on the other hand, has received scant political attention so far. Sharks are illegally netted and finned by license-bearing foreign fishermen, with the sharks’ fins most likely destined for Asia, especially China, where a bowl of shark fin soup can easily cost $100. A firmer approach to illegal fishing was already advocated in 2014 when the EU suspended all seafood imports from Belize, saying the country had not acted forcefully enough to prevent illegal fishing, also known as pirate fishing. Whilst some progress has since been made, the country has a measly 70 fisheries enforcement officers, who must patrol its 240 miles of Caribbean coast and more than 200 islands, as well as contend with well equipped international fishing fleets. Conservationists advocate the introduction of a system that assigns specific zones to fishermen as a way to foster fishermen’s stewardship of fishing areas and a self-empowered control system less dependent on authorities. One can only hope that Belize will solve this challenge and avoid irreversible damage to its marine ecosystem.   

To learn more about how Belize is taking new steps to protect the Barrier Reef System: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/04/belize-restores-coral-reefs-oil-drilling-ban-environment/

To read about the public mobilization that lead to the Government’s decision to ban oil exploration: https://oceana.org/blog/belize-became-world’s-first-country-reject-all-offshore-oil-here’s-how-it-happened

To learn more about coral reef restoration and coral nurseries in Belize: https://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/last-best-place-earth-who-will-save-caribbean-great-coral-reef and http://fragmentsofhope.org and http://discovermagazine.com/2014/sept/1-how-to-restore-a-dying-reef  

To see how technology can support the fight against illegal fishing: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/12/drones-fight-pirate-fishing-belize-conservation/

Heike Schnell