The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System is a wonder. Inscribed as a World Heritage site in 1996, it’s home to sea turtles, manatees, and American marine crocodiles. It represents the “evolutionary history of reef development” and includes 450 cayes and three atolls. The reserve is part of the Mesoamerican Reef, which is the second largest in the world (behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef). But largely due to unsustainable tourism practices, Belize’s reef has recently been added to the “List of World Heritage in Danger.”
One of the biggest threats to the reef reserve’s sustainability is mangrove cutting to make way for commercial development. According to a State of Conservation report for the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, 29 percent of mangroves in Pelican Caye have been cut down. The ocean floor has been dredged to fill the land with coral and sand, resulting in a loss of sponges and other sea life.
The number of visitors to the reef has tripled since its World Heritage designation, and Half Moon Caye alone hosts 10,000 tourists per year. According to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, over 600,000 people arrive in Belize via cruise ships, a method of travel vigorously promoted by the country’s government and private sector.
There are lots of problems to tackle, but there are also some positive signs. The local community has an interest in preserving the reserve, fishermen are learning about conservation and sustainable fishing practices, and efforts are being made to regulate tourism in the World Heritage site. In order to fully protect the reserve system, however, more cooperation is needed between Belize’s government and tourism industry, NGOs that manage some sites, and UNESCO.
Photo: Bobby Ramirez via Flickr
- Nat Geo Expeditions