Stalking Three: Conservation of Coastal Cays

Who doesn’t love the beach? We definitely enjoyed staying on the beautiful tropical island of South Water Caye during the tail end of our third journey, which took partially took place in Central American country of Belize. While going to the beach may be a favorite pastime of many, there is a much fewer number of people who truly place a value on the coast and therefore attempt to conserve it. Conservation can be defined as the act of protecting, managing, and maintaining the environment and its natural resources. Throughout the journey we were able to grasp a better understanding of the how the general conservation and management of Belize’s coastal and coral reef ecosystems matches up to the rapid degradation, similar to many of our Earth’s habitats.

Belize is home to the second largest coral reef system in the world. It is a rich place of coral reefs, mangroves, and sea grass beds and provides habitat for some of the most biologically and ecologically diverse organisms in the world. We were able to stay on an island in South Water Caye Marine Reserve, which was established by the Belize Fisheries Department in 1996 and is the largest marine protected area in Belize. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage protected site. The Fisheries Department employs only a manager, biologist, 2 rangers, a caretaker, and some Coast Guard members for the Marine Reserve, which covers a huge 117,878 acres. “The staff is responsible for enforcing the fisheries regulations, carrying out patrols, surveillance, research, monitoring, education, outreach, collection of visitor fees and overall management” (Park Rules and Regulations). This huge task in such a large area makes the Reserve’s job quite difficult. We also learned from the rangers that the system was shut down for a few years until 2013 due to strapping finances, economic issues are often a concern in the conservation world.

There are often issues with allocating budgets for conservation, but ironically coral reef ecosystems provide a major source of economic income for Belize. The World Resource Institute’s article “Coastal Capital Belize: The Economic Contribution of Belize’s Coral Reefs and Mangroves” highlights and estimates the economic advances for Belize associated with tourism, dependent fisheries, and avoided damages from the coral and mangrove ecosystems. They estimate that those three categories bring revenue of 395 to 559 million dollars annually to Belize, compared to their GDP, which was 1.3 billion dollars in 2007. The benefits that the reef ecosystem provide versus the way it is treated does not make sense.

Through this all Belize’s coral reef system remains in “poor” health condition based on the 2015 Report Card for the Mesoamerican Reef. Even the marine protected area has issues of eutrophication, overfishing, pollution, sea level rise, and ocean acidification, coupled with threats of agriculture runoff, trawling, and development (Hardesty). These alarming environmental and economic keep building, and it is hard for the small staff of the Marine Reserve to manage and police all of this, especially in such a large protected area. And what will become of the ecosystems not under conservation?

Facing these challenges and coming up with solutions will not be an easy task, especially when there are rapid increases in environmental degradation. Chesapeake writer Tom Horton discusses this in the chapter titled “Coming and Going” from his book Bay Country. There will always be a “baseline” or prior standard and measure of degradation, a level at which anything below is unacceptable. Horton claims that each new generation accepts a lower baseline, and that this can lead to less of things like management and conservation. This stigma is a huge issue for the coastal ecosystem of Belize, as well as other areas of the world like the Chesapeake Bay.

One idea for a solution to the issue of coastal conservation comes from the theory of traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK. TEK is all about the knowledge of relationships of living beings with one another and the environment in a way that is culturally transmitted through social attitudes of beliefs, principles, and conventions of behavior (Lampman). As a society we must be more knowledgeable about ecosystems and the environment, and the role we play in their survival, as well as the role they play in our survival. This is very important to consider when deciding how to conserve and manage an ecosystem like the coastal and coral reefs of Belize. The same management and maintenance issues arise in our own Chesapeake Bay. Seeing what is good and what is bad about the conservation system in Belize can be applied back to our waterway, and we can provide information to them as well. In order to keep our coasts the way we want them, we must value and conserve them.


Hardesty, lecture, 2015.

Horton, Tom. Bay Country: Coming and Going. 1987.

Lampman, lecture, 2015.

World Resource Institute. Coastal Capital Belize: The Economic Contribution of Belize’s Coral Reefs and Mangroves.

2015 Mesoamerican Reef Report Card.


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