At the time of writing, according to the UN’s World Database on Protected Areas which records the amount of marine protected areas (MPA’s) submitted globally, there are over 17,000 MPA’s recorded covering over 7% of the ocean’s surface.
Where has this growth in MPA coverage come from?
In 2000 the area covered by MPAs was approximately 2 million km² (or 0.7% of the ocean), since then there has been over a ten-fold increase in MPA coverage with 26,947,375 km² (or 7.44%) of the ocean being covered by MPAs.
What is an MPA?
MPAs are often classified according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Protected Area Categories. The two primary types are fully protected areas and multi-use areas. In Belize, marine reserves are established under the Fisheries Department as a fisheries management tool and have clearly defined zones. These allow for extractive and non-extractive use, with use concentrating on sustainable fishing, tourism, research, and education and conservation protection. A key organisation committed to monitoring and improving the quality of the Mesoamerican reef is the Health Reefs Initiative, which recommends for Belize to expand the coverage of fully protected areas across their section of the barrier reef.
A more conservative assessment of the global picture by the Marine Conservation Institute and its Atlas of Marine Protection, shows only 2.5% of the ocean is managed by highly/fully protected areas.
The MPAs of Belize encompass some of the best representative examples of the Mesoamerican Reef. They form part of the largest, and possibly the least impacted reef in the Atlantic–Caribbean region, with the highest diversity of fish species, with over 500 species present. Marine reserves include littoral forest and mangroves; seagrass meadows rich in marine life; crystal clear lagoons scattered with numerous cayes and near-pristine reefs; and the barrier reef itself, where grouper and snapper gather in huge spawning aggregations. From the whale sharks migration to the smallest coral polyp, the reef and the associated habitats are a complex, integrated series of ecosystems that support viable populations of threatened species, sustain coastal fishing communities and draw significant tourism to Belize.
What about Belize’s MPAs?
Belize is making strong strides in the right direction for preserving its marine environment. According to the Reef Health Index (RHI) Belize now has the highest RHI rank out of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras for positively managing its section of the Mesoamerican reef.
Are local fishermen committed to tackling overfishing?
The MPAs of Belize form an integral part of the cultural way of life for many Belizeans. Coastal communities preserve a traditional way of life that is closely tied to the marine resources, with fishermen on Tobacco Caye free-diving for lobster and conch during the open season from locally built canoes or catching snapper on hand lines for local fish markets. These communities are seeking to maintain their cultural values, heritage and their link with the marine environment. We have seen first hand sustainable fishing practices in Belize which have been handed down through the generations. A “raati” net named after the Belizean Creole word for a large crab, is still common in the south of the country, where it’s considered environmentally friendly fishing gear. Fishermen cast off bridges and in shallow water using raati nets to snag abundant blue crabs, mostly for subsistence. The nets are used in areas where they won’t tangle on corals or other delicate sea life. They don’t even hurt crabs, so fishers can throw them back if they’re too small.
In Belize the decline of marine resources has resulted in the emergence of alternative livelihoods such as tourism. Tourism provides over 40% of Belize’s GDP and offers a unique opportunity for protected area stakeholders to whole-heartedly share the richness of their proud Belizean identity with guests.