Saturday, June 6, 2015

Belize 2015 | UNESCO World Heritage Site (Part 2)

Aquarists from the New England Aquarium frequently travel to Belize as part of a long-term research program by Aquarium scientist Randi Rotjan, PhD, to monitor coral health near Carrie Bow Cay. Today's post by aquarist Peter Gawne is part of a series about the research. Read Part One first.

Turneffe Atoll, another of the atolls outlying the barrier reef, is the largest coral atoll in Belize and the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. Long considered an area of ecological importance, the Belizean government declared the Turneffe Atolls to be a marine reserve in 2012. At present, 10 percent of this marine reserve is a strict no-take zone, while the remainder is open for extractive fishing.

Man-O-War Caye is afforded the highest protection level amidst the South Water Caye Marine Reserve.  Nesting frigatebirds and boobies cluster around this extraordinary mangrove island.

South Water Caye Marine Reserve is the largest marine reserve in Belize, and home to Carrie Bow Caye, the site of the Smithsonian’s field station in Belize.  Its northern section contains an extraordinary 5.6-mile stretch of almost unbroken barrier reef.  The southern section hosts complex physical features; multiple patch reefs, faros, and pinnacles are scattered throughout the barrier reef system.  This marine reserve is of particular national importance, as the back-reef lagoon surrounding the Tobacco Range has been shown to support a nursery area for queen conch (Strombus gigas), one of Belize’s most important fisheries.  The mangroves of Twin Cayes, Tobacco and the Blue Ground ranges are considered important for the sustainability of commercially important species for the entire reef system. The mangroves and sea-grass beds provide critical habitat for juvenile spiny lobster and many commercial finfish, the backbone of Belize’s fishing industry.

An American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) lurks in the margins of a mangrove channel. While this specimen was merely 5 feet in length, males in the Central and South American range can reach 20 feet. 

The South Water Caye Marine Reserve also contains a startling range of biodiversity above the waterline. Man O’ War Caye boasts a designated bird sanctuary holding nesting colonies of magnificent frigatebirds, pelicans, and brown boobies. Twin Caye is home to the American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus), a large but much less dangerous cousin to Australia’s saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus).

The original establishment of South Water Caye Marine Reserve in 1996 recognized the exceptional integrity of the marine ecosystems and its importance regionally, nationally, and internationally.  The marine reserve was further enhanced by the Statutory Instrument (SI 50 of 2009) which strengthened zoning and included nationally-owned cayes.  Currently, 12% of the South Water Caye Marine Reserve has been reserved for non-extractive uses, while the remainder of it is available for regulated fishing.

Catch up on previous trips to Belize—lots more amazing pictures!
  • See the beauty of hermit crabs and ride out a tropical storm during their 2013 trip
  • Learn more about threats to corals, plus signs of a late-night visitor to Carrie Bow Cay, in 2012
  • See what other researchers are up to at the research station in 2011
  • And read the exciting post where the marine protected area was announced in 2010

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