Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, Belize
The nominated World Heritage Site includes the following areas:
Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve (18°11'-18°04'N, 87°48'-87°55'W), which lies 37 km north of San Pedro Town, covering the northernmost part of Ambergris Caye, with its associated reef tract and, on the west, an area of the Chetumal Bay; Laughing Bird Caye National Park (16°25'-16°30'N, 88°09'-88°13'W), 17 km south-east of Placencia Village on the mainland coast; Half Moon Caye Natural Monument (17°14'-17°51'N, 87°29'- 87°34'W) which lies on the south-east edge of the Lighthouse Reef, the most easterly of Belize's atolls, 100 km east of Belize City, includes the entire caye and a substantial portion of the surrounding fringing reef and lagoon; Blue Hole Natural Monument (17°16'-87°32'W) which is located at the center of the Lighthouse Reef; Glover's Reef Marine Reserve (16°38'-16°55'N, 87°39'-87°53'W), which is the southernmost atoll in Belize, lying 45 km east off the mainland coast; South Water Caye Marine Reserve (16°38'-16°55'N, 88°02'-88°13'W), 14km from the mainland coast, the northern boundary being level with Dangriga Town; and Sapodilla Cays Marine Reserve (16°04'-16°11'N, 88°09'- 88°20'W), which covers the southernmost portion of the Barrier Reef, 75 km north-east of the Punta Gorda Town. The Belize Barrier Reef belongs to the Central American biogeographical province.
Date and History of Establishment
- 1928: Part of Half Moon Caye gazetted as a Bird Sanctuary;
- 1977: Man O'War Caye, which lies within the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, designated as a Crown Reserve;
- 1979: Part of Half Moon Caye reclassified as a Crown Reserve under the Crown Lands Ordinance of 1979;
- 1981: Half Moon Caye Natural Monument and Laughing Bird Cay National Park were designated as protected areas under the National Parks System Act of 1981 (Chapter 181 of the Laws of Belize);
- 1982: The entire caye declared Natural Monument on 20 March;
- 1983: all the marine areas designated as protected under the Fisheries Act (Chapter 174 of the Laws of Belize), through the Fisheries (Amendment) Act, No. 1;
- 1991: Laughing Bird National Park created by Statutory Instrument No. 167 of 21 December 1991;
- 1993: Glover's Reef established by Statutory Instrument No. 38 of 22 May 1993;
- South Water and Sapodilla Cayes designated as Marine Reserves;
- Bacalar Chico established partly as a National Park (terrestrial component) and partly as a Marine Reserve (marine component);
- Blue Hole was designated as Natural Monument;
- The Reserve Inscribed as a natural World Heritage property.
The nominated World Heritage Site totals 96,300 hectares (ha) and is made up of the following existing and proposed protected areas:
- Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve10,700 ha
- Blue Hole Natural Monument 4,100 ha
- Half Moon Caye Natural Monument 3,900 ha
- South Water Caye Marine Reserve 29,800 ha
- Glover's Reef Marine Reserve 30,800 ha
- Laughing Bird Caye National Park 4,300 ha
- Sapodilla Cays Marine Reserve 12,700 ha
The reef system is mainly state owned. The terrestrial component of the Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve has recently been purchased by the government from a private owner (the Pinkerton Estate). The six cayes included within Glover's Reef Marine Reserve are privately owned. The South Water Caye Marine Reserve includes a number of leased and privately owned cayes, or small islands and natural reefs, will not be designated as part of the protected area. The Sapodilla Cays Marine Reserve includes a total of eight cayes, three of which (Frank's, Nicholas and Lime) are leased and will not be included within the protected area. The remaining cayes (Tom Owen's, Northeast Sapodilla, Hunting, Ragged and Seal) are state owned.
The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve ranges from 0 to 5 meters (m).
The nominated site is included within the Belize Barrier Reef Complex, which is located only a few hundred meters offshore in northern Ambergris Caye, to about 40 km offshore in the south. The barrier reef presents a zonation pattern which seems to be similar to that described for other reefs in the Caribbean. In the north, the barrier reef touches the shoreline at Rocky Point, maybe one of the few sites in the world where a major barrier reef meets a coast. Outside the barrier reef, there are three large atolls: Turneffe Islands (33,000 ha), Lighthouse (12,600 ha) and Glover's Reef (13,200 ha).
The Belize submarine shelf is the drowned expression of a low-relief karst surface with locally developed sinkholes such as the Boca Ciega 'blue hole', and river channels. The coast floor consists of a series of fault blocks, which have created submarine escarpments. The northern part of the barrier reef and Ambergris Caye lie on one block; the Turneffe Islands and the central part of the barrier reef lie on a second; and the barrier reef south of Gladden Spit, with Lighthouse Reef and Glover's Reef, lie on a third.
Between the mainland and the barrier reef is an extensive offshore lagoon which increases in width and depth from north to south. In the north, water depth averages 2-3 m with a maximum of 6 m over a flat, featureless bottom 20-25 km wide. Bottom sediments consist of a land-derived band in the nearshore and an offshore mud dominated by foraminiferal tests. South of Belize City, the shelf gradually deepens forming a channel between the mainland and the outer platform, reaching a depth of 65 m in the Gulf of Honduras. On the west, between the barrier reef and Glover's Reef, and between Lighthouse and Glover's Reefs, depths range from 300 m to 400 m. On the east side of the Glover's Reef, the sea floor falls sharply to over 1,000 m depth.
The approximately 450 sand and mangrove cays confined within the barrier and atolls range in size from small, ephemeral sand spits to larger, permanent islands capable of sustaining human settlements. Cays typically develop in gaps between stretches of linear reef, on more arched reef segments, or at prominent bends in the reef. Ambergris Caye is the largest and northern most cay in Belize.
The Belize Barrier Reef Complex can be divided in three major provinces, each having distinctive reef community composition and geomorphic characteristics: (i) the northern province, which contains 46 km of shallow-water reefs; (ii) the central province, with 91 km of shallow-water reefs; and (iii) the southern province, which includes 10 km of shallow-water reefs. The central province is described as having the better developed reefs. A detailed transect study was carried out by the Smithsonian Institute at Carrie Bow Cay (South Water Cay). The transect was laid eastward from the lagoon to the open ocean, and revealed a distinct zonation of substrates and organisms, governed primarily by water depth and the prevailing wave and current regime.
Offshore water currents are dominated by the south-westerly Caribbean Current. Reduced circulation in Chetumal Bay causes it to function as an evaporation basin in the dry season, with salt water penetrating up the New and Hondo Rivers. Salinity patterns on the northern and southern shelves differ during the rainy season. In the north, the shallow water is well mixed and there is no surface freshwater edge effect or 'lens'. In the south, a lens of freshwater spreads out from the Punta Gorda area where river discharge is greatest. Offshore salinities are typically oceanic (35 parts per trillion (ppt)). Tidal range averages 0.5 m, and its influence on coastal current patterns in Belize are small. However, currents become significant in the channels between reef segments and cays.
The coast of Belize lies in the outer tropics (geographic belt), characterized by higher extreme and mean temperatures than occur in lower tropical latitudes. Mean annual temperatures range from 16-17 degrees Celsius (°C) in winter to 24-25°C in summer, in Glover's Reef atoll to the south; and from 23-26°C in winter to 28-31°C in summer, in Bacalar Chico to the north. Mean annual precipitation fluctuates between 1,500 millimeters (mm) to the north and 4,000 mm to the south. A dry season characterized by strong easterly winds, runs from January-February to May-June. Strong winter storms blow from October to February, often as 'northers' which bring cool temperatures, heavy rains, strong winds and rough seas. Until May, winds tend to be strong and fairly constant averaging 16-24 kilometers per hour (kph). In the summer there are occasional strong squalls with winds up to 48 kph. The hurricane season occurs between August-October.
Stoddart et al. recorded 178 species of vascular plants, including 32 non-native species, in coastal Belize. Most of the cayes are mangrove dominated although some are of sand with shrub and coconut vegetation. Wright et al. recognized three major types of mangrove forest: (i) a Conocarpus erectus (buttonwood)-Rhizophora mangle (red mangrove)-Laguncularia racemosa (white mangrove) association on land periodically inundated with seawater; (ii) permanently inundated R. mangle; and (iii) a R. mangle-L. racemosa association with occasional black mangrove Avicennia germinans where salt water infrequently intrudes. Mangroves may form a narrow coastal fringe, a concentric ring around small mainland lagoons, or colonize the lagoon side of offshore cays.
|Female flower heads of Conocarpus erectus (Combretaceae) from Ajuruteua Peninsula, Bragança, Pará, North Brazil (By Ulf Mehlig, via Wikimedia Commons)|
Several cayes have stands of littoral forest with ziricote Cordia sebestena, teabox Myrica cerifera, gumbo limbo Bursera simaruba and coco plum Chrysobalanus icaco. These are fringed by sea grape Coccoloba uvifera, shrubs, such as Tournefortia gnaphalodes, Suriana maritima and Borrichia arborescens, and coconut tree Cocos nucifera. Other vegetation types include: herbaceous marsh and swamp found in seasonally inundated depressions, dominated by rushes, sedges, calabash Amphitecna breedlovei, bullet tree Bucida buceras and Jacquinia aurantiaca; grass savannas with scattered medium-talled (3-10m) A. breedlovei and logwood Haematoxylon campechianum; low semi-deciduous forest with a canopy 8-15 m in height, and formed by B. simaruba, poison wood Cameraria latifolia and H. campechianum; and medium semi-deciduous forest with a multi-level canopy 8-25 m in height.
A total of 247 taxa of marine flora has been described from the barrier reef. This vegetation mainly consists of large areas of seagrass beds, particularly of turtle seagrass Thalassia testudinum and manatee seagrass Syringodium filiforme. Algal diversity within this habitat is usually high, with Halimeda incrassata. H. monile, Rhipocephalus phoenix, and Udotea flabellum. Sargassum species and red algae of the genus Laurencia are also common.
There are over 500 species of fish, 65 scleraetinian corals, 45 hydroids and 350 molluscs in the area, plus a great diversity of sponges, marine worms and crustaceans. The area harbors probably the largest population (300-700 individuals) of West Indian manatee Trichechus manatus (V) in the world. Several bird species of conservation concern are found in the cayes and atolls.
Major seabird and waterbird colonies include those of red-footed booby Sula sula (3,000-4,000 individuals) on Half Moon Caye, brown booby Sula leucogaster on Man O'War Caye, and common noddy Anous stolidus on Glover's Reef. Other noteworthy breeding birds are brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis and magnificent frigate bird Fregata magnificens. Laughing gull Larus artricilla used to breed on Laughing Bird Caye, but due to growing pressure from visitors the bird has moved to nearby cayes. Cayes with stands of littoral forest and mangroves are important habitat for certain birds endemic to the Yucatan Peninsula, as well as staging areas for migrants. Three species of sea turtles nest in Belize and are routinely encountered between the coast and the barrier reef, and on the atolls: loggerhead Caretta caretta (E), green Chelonia mydas (EN), and hawksbill Eretmochelys imbricata (E). Nesting occurs at a few mainland sites and on offshore cayes and atolls. American crocodile Crocodylus acutus (V) occurs among the offshore cayes and atolls, and nesting is known to occur at several sites.
Shell middens at Mayan sites along the coast and on the cayes provide evidence that the reefs were used for fishing some 2,500 years ago. Between 300 B.C. and 900 A.D., the coastal waters were probably used extensively for fishing by the Mayans, and trading posts, ceremonial centers and burial grounds were established on the cayes. There are at least seven Mayan sites in the Bacalar Chico area, some of which, such as San Juan on the west coast, are of particular cultural and historical value. In addition, the northern boundary of the proposed reserve, the Bacalar Chico channel was dug by Mayan traders between 700 and 900 A.D., when the northwestern side of the Ambergris Caye was a major trans-shipment point for the large Mayan city-state of Santa Rita in Corozal District. Other important Mayan sites have been found on some of the cayes of South Water Caye, Sapodilla Cayes and Glovers Reef areas.
With the decline of the Maya civilization, the reef's resources probably went largely unused for a number of centuries, although early Spanish explorers used the cayes to repair their boats and collect freshwater. By the early 17th century, the coastal water of Belize had however become a heaven for pirates and buccaneers, largely from Britain, who looted Spanish and British trading ships and survived on the abundant marine resources available. Subsequently, many of the pirates, as well as Puritan traders from the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua, settled in the cayes, becoming fishermen and plantation owners.
Since then, there have been a number of waves of immigration into the coastal area, including the Garifuna people who settled in the southern part of the mainland coast in the early 1800s, immigrants from Mexico who populated Ambergris Caye and adjacent areas following the Castle Wars in the mid-19th century, and most recently North Americans and other foreigners who have been lured by the beauty of the reef and its surroundings and have taken up residence in the cayes.
Local Human Population
People living in small towns and communities of coastal Belize (such as San Pedro, Sarteneja, Placencia and Punta Gorda) as well as major urban centers (such as Belize City), have access to marine and near-shore resources. Since early this century, the economic importance of the reef has increased steadily with the growth of the coastal population. Initially, its importance lay in the fishing industry with a wide range of species being harvested, ranging from turtles, sharks and finfish, to sponges and seaweeds. Today, lobster Panulirus spp. and queen conch Strombus gigas (CT) are the main fisheries products, and contribute most of the total value of exported seafood, which was estimated at US$8.8 million in 1994, and US$10.4 million in 1995. There is also a domestic fishery for shallow reef fish and a commercial fishery for deep slope snappers Lutjanus spp. and groupers Epinephalus spp. Currently the main use of the barrier reef ecosystem is for tourism, which is the country's largest source of foreign exchange.
Visitors and Visitor Facilities
An estimated 128,000 tourists visited the Belize Barrier Reef Complex in 1994, generating an estimated US$75 million. The reef is a major tourist attraction, the main centers for diving and snorkelling being San Pedro, Caye Caulker and Placencia. Other activities include bird-watching in some areas (such as Half Moon Caye), sightseeing, sportfishing and picnicking. San Pedro is the main headquarters of the tourist industry. The Hol Chan channel is easily visited by boat from San Pedro and is regularly visited by chartered boats with a guide. Tourists from Caye Caulker also visit Hol Chan by chartered boat, as also do tourists chartering yachts from Belize City. The Bacalar Chico channel provides access from the inner lagoon and Chetumal Bay to the main barrier reef and deep waters. Access to Lighthouse Reef is only by boat or amphibious plane. Boats generally come from Ambergris Caye and Belize City and Caye Caulker. Laughing Bird Caye is only accessible by boat mainly from the nearby Placencia Village.
Scientific Research and Facilities
The first major study on the reefs and cays of Belize was carried out by the 'Cambridge Expedition to British Honduras' between 1959 and 1960. Work prior to that was largely confined to personal collecting trips made by visitors and inhabitants to the then British colony. Throughout the 1960's, a series of studies focusing primarily on the geology of the barrier reef complex, was carried out. In 1972, the Smithsonian Institute established a field station on Carrie Bow Cay. A comprehensive range of publications concerning the physical and biological characteristics of the reef and associated environment have been generated by visiting scientists, much of which has been brought together in a volume by Rutzler and Macintyre (1982). In addition, organizations such as Wildlife Conservation International (WCI), the New York Natural History Society, and expeditions from numerous universities have added to the scientific knowledge of the Belize reef. In 1990, the Belize Centre for Environmental Studies (BCES) carried out an environmental review on a country-wide scale.
There has been little previous research on either terrestrial or marine habitats in the proposed Bacalar Chico protected area. A Rapid Ecologic Assessment was carried out for Northern Ambergris Caye by BCES in 1993. The Centro de Investigaciones de Quintana Roo (Center for Research in Quintana Roo) (CIQRO) in Mexico carried out survey work in the area in 1990/1 and produced a four-volume set of studies.
The Belize submarine shelf and its barrier reef - which includes the nominated site- is the world's second largest barrier reef system and the largest reef complex in the Atlantic-Caribbean area. The reef ecosystem is of remarkable biological diversity and beauty. It is an area of great scientific value and also provides a habitat for many species of conservation concern, for example manatee and sea turtles.
In 1990, the Government of Belize created the Coastal Zone Management Unit (CZMU) within the Fisheries Department, and a project to develop a Coastal Zone Management Plan received formal approval and was included as part of the country's National Development Plan. This Plan will develop the capabilities of the CZMU and will assist in the management and conservation of the country's coastal resources through institutional strengthening, development of monitoring and planning techniques, implementation of applied research and enhancement of public awareness. The first phase of the program was carried out with assistance from International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), and involved the collection and compilation of data relevant to the coastal zone. The second and third phases involve the preparation of plans, policies and legislation, and their implementation. These activities are being carried out with assistance of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)/Global Environment Facility (GEF) Coastal Zone Management Project which was initiated in 1993.
The three main ministries involved in coastal management are the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (responsible for marine reserves and fisheries management), the Ministry of Natural Resources (responsible for terrestrial protected areas) and the Ministry of Tourism and Environment. Co-ordination of activities is undertaken through the CZMU and the work of a CZM Technical Committee. The Government of Belize is currently developing a National Protected Areas System Plan and the nominated site will form part of this system. Draft management plans have been prepared for all seven areas which make up the nominated World Heritage Site. These plans include a preliminary zonation of each area; descriptions of the types of activities permitted or not permitted; descriptions of programs of research, surveillance and enforcement, environment education, recreation and tourism; staffing and training needs; and budget. The Fisheries and Forestry Departments are in charge of the day-to-day management of the sites. In some cases, management is being delegated to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and local communities, the government agencies providing support and assistance as required. Thus, Half Moon Caye is managed by the Belize Audubon Society (BAS), and Laughing Bird National Park will be managed by a committee of local representatives. An overall co- ordinating mechanism will also be developed, may be in the form of a Protected Areas Co-ordinating Unit (as recommended in the study for a National Protected Areas System Plan) or through some form of Coastal Zone Management institute, the structure of which is being developed with the assistance of the UNDP/GEF Coastal Zone Management Project. Either of these bodies could oversee management of the nominated World Heritage site.
Despite its enormous economic value to the overall economy of Belize, the Barrier Reef ecosystem is threatened by over-exploitation of reef resources by the fishing and tourist industries. The reefs within the Hol Chan area near San Pedro Town, are showing signs of stress caused by over collecting and damage from boat's anchors. Other major disturbances are habitat alteration caused by hotel and marina construction; nutrient enrichment from run-off of agrochemicals that are increasingly being used on banana and citrus plantations and from sewage pollution from tourist resorts and residential and urban centers; erosion of the shoreline by removal of vegetation including mangroves and seagrass areas; and choking of corals by siltation resulting from dredging and sand mining. There has been some exploratory offshore oil drilling, but there have been not significant finds and there is currently no commercial exploitation.
For decades, the Sapodilla Cayes and Glover's Reef areas have been illegally fished by Guatemalan and Honduran fishermen. Since there are no closed seasons or size limits for conch and lobster in those countries, much of the area has been depleted of its conch and lobster populations. Those who had used the Bacalar Chico area for a number of years expressed concern over the general decline in the fish catch. Much of the past fishing activity reported in the area involved Mexican fishermen illegally fishing in Belizean waters. With the creation of marine reserves, fishing pressure on some areas, such as Hol Chan, is much reduced and is restricted to the low level allowed for under the regulations.
Much native vegetation on cays has either been eliminated or disturbed for coconut plantations. Coastal forest habitat is the first priority for clear-cutting by urban developments. Bird fauna is thus at particular risk as much of the critical forest habitat lies on privately owned land. Furthermore, human commensal species, such as great-tailed grackle Quiscalus mexiccanus and bronzed cowbird Molothrus aeneus, normally increase in number around human settlements and result in the loss of nesting success in other birds. Past human pressure has caused Laughing gull Larus artricilla to stop nesting on Laughing Bird Caye. Similar pressures may be threatening the breeding colonies of red-footed booby of Half-Moon Caye, and of common noddy of Glover's Reef.
Each protected area has a staff consisting of 3-5 people, including a manager, wardens, researchers and volunteers.
A total of US$3 million funding, through the five year UNDP/GEF Coastal Zone Management Project, is available for the period 1993-1998.
IUCN Management Category
- Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine ReserveII (National Park)
- Laughing Bird Caye National Park II (National Park)
- Half Moon Cay Natural Monument III (Natural Monument)
- Blue Hole Natural Monument III (Natural Monument)
- Glovers Reef Marine Reserve IV (Habitat/Species Management Area)
- South Water Cay Marine Reserve IV (Habitat/Species Management Area)
- Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve IV (Habitat/Species Management Area)
- Natural World Heritage Site criteria (ii), (iii) and (iv)
- Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries of Belize (1995). Belize Barrier Reef Complex: Nomination for Natural World Heritage Site. 34 pp. + annexes + maps.
- Belize Audubon Society (1986). Half Moon Caye Natural Monument 5-Year Development Plan. 1986-1991. Belize Audubon Society. Unpublished.
- Bevier, W. (1994). Laughing Bird Caye National Park Management Plan. Belize Audubon Society, Placencia Chapter. Unpublished.
- Dotherow, M., Wells, S. and Young, E. (1995). Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary. Preliminary Draft Management Plan. Fisheries Department and Forest Department, Government of Belize. Unpublished.
- Gibson, J.P. (1986). Hol Chan Marine Reserve Draft Management Plan. Wildlife Conservation International. Unpublished.
- Gibson, J.P. (1988). Glover's Reef Atoll Draft Management Plan. Wildlife Conservation Society. Unpublished.
- Gibson, J.P., Price, A.R.G., and Young, E. (1993). Guidelines for developing a coastal zone management plan for Belize. The GIS Database. A marine conservation and development report. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. (Unseen). ISBN: 2831701562.
- Hartshorn, G., Nicolait, L., Hartsthorn, L., Bevier, G., Brightman, R., Cal, J., Cawich, A., Davidson, W., DuBois, R., Dyer, C., Gibson, J., Hawley, W., Leonard, J., Nicolait, R., Weyer, D., White, H. and Wright, C. (1994). Belize Country Environmental Profile. A field study. United States Agency for International Development. 151 pp.
- McCorry, D., Mumby, P., Raines, P., Ridley (1995). South Water Cay Marine Reserve Draft Management Plan. Coastal Zone Management Unit, Coral Cay Conservation Ltd. Unpublished.
- Perkins, J. and Carr, A. (1985). The Belize Barrier Reef: status and prospects for conservation management. Biological Conservation 31: 291-307.
- Platt, S.G. (1994). Preliminary assessment of the status of the American Crocodyle (Crocodylus acutus) in the Turneffe Atoll, Belize. Report to Coral Cay Conservation and University College of Belize. (Unseen).
- Stoddart, D.R., Fosberg, F.R. and Sachet, M.H. (1982). Cays of the Belize barrier reef and lagoon. Atoll Research Bulletin 256. (Unseen).
- Wantland, K.F. and Pusey III, W.C. (eds.) (1975). Belize shelf - carbonate sediments, clastic sediments, and ecology. American Assessment of Petroleum Geology, Studies in Geology 2. (Unseen).
- Wright, A.C., Rommey, D.H., Arbuckle, R.H. and Vial, V.E. (1959). Land in British Honduras. Colonial Research Publication 24. (Unseen).
- Young, E. (1994). Sapodilla Cays Marine Reserve. Draft Management Plan. Fisheries Department, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Coral Cay Conservation Ltd. Unpublished.
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