Article by Shreya Dasgupta.
The government of Belize has approved a plan to nearly triple the area under its strictly protected waters, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) announced in a press release.
According to the plan, the small Central American nation will expand its fisheries replenishment or no-take zones — areas where most fishing is prohibited to allow fish stocks to increase — across most of its marine protected areas. While the percentage increase will vary across the protected areas, the overall expansion will increase the areas under no-take zones from 4.5 percent to 11.6 percent, Ralna Lewis, assistant director of the WCS’s Belize program, told Mongabay in an email.
“The rationale for this expansion was to provide sufficient protection to marine species, habitats, and ecosystem processes so as to conserve marine biodiversity, sustain fisheries, and increase resilience to climate change,” Lewis said.
Much of the expansion will cover deep-sea areas at depths ranging from 200 to 3,000 meters (660 to 9,850 feet), WCS said. These areas are currently underrepresented in Belize’s system of marine protected areas.
These deep-sea areas also have relatively low fishing pressure at present, but that could increase in the near future, Lewis said.
“Their distance from shore coupled with the level of investment required to purchase the equipment and vessel type needed to fish in these areas has resulted in less use by local commercial fishers,” she said. “However, recent investments in economic alternatives [are] looking at expanding the use of this area by local commercial fishers. This national expansion of Replenishment Zones in Belize’s offshore area should help in sustaining this developing fishery.”
The expansion will also include a no-take area in Belize’s exclusive economic zone, covering an extensive coral reef complex known as the Corona Reef.
“The area is also believed to serve as a spawning aggregation site for numerous finfish species,” Lewis said. “Given the location of the area, its proximity to neighbouring countries such as Honduras and Guatemala, transboundary illegal fishing serves as the primary threat for the site.”
Mapping of the replenishment zones involved several rounds of consultations with stakeholders including the country’s fisheries department, several local and international conservation groups, including the WCS, as well as Belizean commercial and local sports fishers, according to the statement.
A technical steering committee was also established to help map the replenishment zones. One of the factors that guided the selection of the no-take areas, according to Lewis, was size: the areas had to be large enough to protect a species within its home range. The no-take areas also had to be representative, that is, they had to capture habitats that are crucial in a species’ life cycle; and they had to be placed at distances that would allow connectivity and exchange of larvae, among other things. “Social costs and benefits were also taken into consideration when determining site selection,” Lewis said.
With the expansion of strictly protected areas to nearly 12 percent of its waters, Belize will move toward achieving some of its international commitments. These include the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Aichi Target 11, which calls for conserving at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by 2020.
Mongabay reached out to the Belize Fisheries Department for comment, but did not receive any response as of the time of publishing this article. In a statement, the Belize fisheries administrator, Beverly Wade, said “a healthy reef and vibrant fisheries sector is necessary for Belize to achieve its goals for reducing poverty, improving food security and nutrition and increasing investment for development in Belize.”
Banner image of healthy Mesoamerican Reef system, off Ambergris Caye, by Erik Hoffner/Mongabay.