During the last quarter of this century, the world's coastal and marine ecosystems have experienced a variety of unsustainable projects. As a result this has lead to loss and degradation of natural habitats in coastal areas, which in turn adds to the growing problem of diminishing global bio-diversity. Belize is not an exception to these threats. In recent years the country has experienced considerable growth in several relevant economic sectors, including coastal fisheries, aquaculture, coastal agriculture, and tourism. All these stimulate the growth of local economy and provide a source of employment. However, it may result in irreversible damage to the marine environment.
Conserving our coastal ecosystem is acquiring more importance, as we become aware of what vital role they play in our daily lives. The establishment of marine protected areas can be a solution to conserve these natural places, but many of these designated protected areas fail to accomplish their objectives. There are several reasons why they fail: lack of local support, lack of management and financial support.
Belize has the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and three offshore atolls. Associated with this are lagoons and coastal mangrove forest that form a complex ecosystem. The Belize barrier reef runs parallel to the coast for about 240 Km.
The coastal areas of Belize are among the most productive ecosystems in the world. Coral reefs function as barriers to coastal erosion, as important producers of organic nutrients, and provide a habitat for commercially valuable species of shellfish and finfish. Coral reefs are vital to the local economy. They provide the resources for the fishing industry and the expanding nature based tourism. Furthermore, coral reefs may contain untapped compounds that can be used for the synthesis of a wide range of drugs, such as anticancer agents.
Belize has a low population density and this has contributed to minimal disturbances of our coastal ecosystems. However, in recent years dramatic changes have started to threaten the integrity of our coastal resources. Tourism has become a fast growing industry and has increased the uses of our coastal areas for diving, boating, swimming, and sport fishing. Excess of these activities can contribute to reef degradation. Also, over-fishing has depleted once abundant stocks of conch, lobster and scale fish. Pollution is now a major concern. This includes sewage discharge from residential and commercial coastal development, accidental discharge from vessels, marine debris, and chemical runoffs from increased agricultural production, especially citrus and bananas.
Ambergris Caye is the longest and northernmost island in Belize. San Pedro Town is located on the southernmost section of Ambergris Caye. San Pedro Town was founded primarily as a fishing village. At first, the settlement was a small community that depended on traditional fishing and coconut production. In the mid 1960's the Caribbean Fishermen Co-operative was established. This venture drastically changed the economic development of the island. This allowed fishermen to collectively sell and process their products from the island instead of relying on facilities on the mainland or overseas. The expanding international market increased the demand for fisheries products such as coach, lobster and shellfish. Fishing became the primary source of income for San Pedro.
Within a decade, over-fishing was starting to have its effects on the reefs. Commercially valuable fisheries stocks were on a decline. Nevertheless, the profit from the fishing boom allowed some locals to develop a small-scale tourist industry. Some of the older fishermen who could no longer withstand the physical strain of diving for conch and lobster started working as tour guides in the emerging tourist industry.
In time the expanding tourist industry was beginning to cause stress to the coastal environment of Ambergris Caye. As a result of growing tourism on the island, there was an increase of commercial and residential development of coastal properties, which in turn brought an increase in local boat traffic and dredge or fill operations. By the mid 1980's the community realized that the reef needed some protection if their livelihood was to be sustained. A grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to Dr. Jack Carter made possible the development of an action plan, and with support of the Fisheries Department, eventually lead to the establishment of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve.
In 1987 the reserve was officially established. Under the management plan Hol Chan has four main goals. These are:
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