After all our dives for the day were over and the kids grabbed dinner and a quick shower, we had the chance to hear the Glovers Reef Research Station manager tell us about the role that the station plays in conservation of the Belize marine ecosystem. The station is on a caye that was bought by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) back in the 1980s. WCS has hundreds of projects worldwide, dealing in conservation of wildlife and wild places. They realized the importance and uniqueness of the Belizean reef system and decided to set up a research station. The only coral atolls in the Atlantic are found in Belize, and they are formed by a different process than typical atolls in the Pacific. In addition, there is a large barrier reef system.
The coral reefs in Belize are important to the country in a multitude of different ways. The Belizean economy is largely supported by tourism, and because of the massive reef system, many of those tourists are SCUBA divers. We definitely agree that this is a lovely place to dive! Besides tourism, the reefs provide a livelihood for fishermen and food for many people. The reefs are even integral in protecting the mainland from hurricanes; the barrier reef can buffer the shoreline from larger storm surges.
Because of these reasons, it’s incredibly important to preserve the corals and reef ecosystems. WCS has partnered with the Belizean fisheries services to provide education for fishermen, including retraining fishermen who no longer can make a living on the reefs. WCS also helps the Belizean government write laws protecting the reefs by placing limits on fishing and harvesting from the reefs. And providing a research station for scientists to visit and make observations and run experiments is also vital.
The Glovers Reef Marine Reserve has been divided up into zones with varying levels of conservation. There is a small section called the Wilderness Area that is completely closed off – no fishing, lobstering, diving, snorkeling, or boating is allowed. The goal is to make this area as free from interference as possible. Other zones are no-take areas for fish, but diving and snorkeling are allowed (that’s the area we’re in!). However, it wouldn’t be practical to completely closed off the atoll from fishing – many fishermen depend on this productive area to earn a living. Without the support of local fishermen, it’s extremely difficult to enforce fishing rules. So there are areas that are open to fishing, but with important limits imposed by the Belizean fisheries service.
During one of our boat rides to a dive site, we passed several small canoes in deep waters. We asked our captain what they were doing and he told us they were free-diving for lobster. It is illegal to use SCUBA to collect lobster in Belize. But these guys were free-diving in 40-50 foot waters! Can you imagine if the Florida Keys restricted lobstering to free-divers? Either the fishermen of Florida would have greatly increased breath-holding skills or there would be a lot more lobsters. It’s definitely interesting to see how other countries are approaching conservation and management of their natural resources as the US struggles with its own regulations.