Friday, January 19, 2007

The Belizean Model for Manatee Conservation

This satellite image of Belize may help you understand why we call her the Jewel of the Caribbean. Note her crowning glory, the Belize Barrier Reef and 3 of the only 4 atolls in this hemisphere. Image courtesy of MODIS Rapid Response Project at NASA/GSFC.

A few months ago, I gave an interview praising Belize as a World Model for conservation of manatees (PDF). Shortly afterwards, I was asked to comment on proposed commercial development in the Belize City area with respect to its impact on the Belizean manatee population. Below is a condensed version of that commentary.

My most serious reservations are not over any one particular development proposal. I am more concerned with the cumulative impact of unabated development that involves the cutting of most, if not all, mangroves from any island between the Belize Barrier Reef and the mainland. The cutting of mangroves, dredging of seagrass beds, and filling of entire islands is incredibly destructive to this complex and dynamic ecosystem. Especially when no silt screen is used during these activities--not that silt screens provide a solution to the problem of increased sedimentation, but they certainly should be a minimal requirement.

If the decision makers in Belize continue to allow development of 'small' projects in the coastal zone without an EIA, or if they continue to appove EIAs that call for clearing of mangrove islands and dredging of seagrass beds, then the incredibly rich habitat in the vicinity of Belize City will be significantly degraded.

So what? Are seagrass beds and mangrove islands really important? We don't eat them, do we? No, but seagrass beds and mangrove islands are essential to the continued viability of manatees, dolphins, sharks, and commercial fisheries within the Belize Barrier Reef System. Additioanlly, they provide protection to the mainland and the coral reef, itself. Conversion of mangrove islands to sandy beach resorts changes thier function from "an essential filter" to "a source for additional erosion and sedimentation". This endangers not only the manatee population but an entire ecosystem and complex food web, including commercial fisheries and the Belize Barrier Reef. The human population of Belize is directly threatened by reducing the effectiveness of these islands to mediate tropical storm energy; and indirectly threatened by the loss of income from the fishery and tourism industries.

In my professional opinion, the destruction of seagrass beds and mangrove islands near Belize City will have a negative effect on the Belizean manatee and dolphin populations, the lobster and conch fisheries, and ultimately--the Belize Barrier Reef. One of the most important factors limiting population viability is available habitat...especially foraging and nursery habitat for which this enviroment is famous. Clearning of managrove islands will lead to fewer seagrass beds, and ultimately fewer manatees, dolphins, lobsters, conch, and finfish. The increased turbitity and sedimentation will smother coral polyps and allow for increased algae growth on the reef.

But, back to my focus on sirenians....since Belize is believed to be the last stronghold for the endangered Antillean manatee, reduction of this population would also have a negative impact on the entire sub-species. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protection of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System reaches beyond Belize and Belizeans as an obligation to the conservation of essential places of significant global importance to biodiversity.

I call Belize my 2nd home and I have 'lived' in the Drowned Cayes for at least 6 months each year since 1998. Still, I firmly believe the decisions made in Belize with respect to development and conservation of natural resources should be made by Belizeans. However, if I did not convey my professional opinion with respect to the consequences of current policy in this area, I would be neglecting my obligation to Belize and the Belizeans who have enabled me to conduct research in this magnificent and pristine jewel of the Caribbean for the past decade.

As a former real estate broker and a current marine scientist, I honestly believe that conservation of Belize's Natural Resources can survive sustainable development. But, if development is un-sustainable, then it will be in vain as the Jewel of the Caribbean tarnishes. And the tourists will move on to some new, pristine, undiscovered place.

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