Reef Revival

Fishing for ways to fix a damaged reef, Belize gives anglers a new line of work.

In 1842, Charles Darwin referred to the Belize Barrier Reef as "the most remarkable reef in the West Indies." Since then, it has become renowned as the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. Nearly 260km long, its colorful collection of corals, fish, and other marine species attracts scientists, snorkelers and divers from around the world. However, with such bountiful biodiversity, the reef also attracts fishermen. As the country's coastal population has grown, its biggest national treasure has suffered the increasing consequences of unchecked fishing.

Within the past decade, several species have been fished nearly to extinction, including the Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus). This fleshy fish is a vital regulator for the reef ecosystem, since it keeps smaller fish and crustacean populations in check, while providing food for baracuda, sharks and dolphins. The Belize government made positive strides towards protecting the grouper last November, when a series of regulations were passed to preserve its spawning areas and establish a four-month closed season for grouper fishing.

However, the new regulations are only as effective as their enforcement. In order to encourage fishermen to follow the rules, the United Nations and a coalition of environmental organizations are training local anglers for new careers as research assistants, tour guides, and dive masters. They are making a case for preservation in terms of cold, hard cash: former fisherman can reel in 20 times more revenue by bringing divers to see the fish than by catching them.

Map by Colleen Sudekum
Top of Blue Hole diving site.
Photo: Dr. Gary Williams

 

Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus).
Photo: Dr. Antonio J. Ferrerra, CAS Special Collections.
This vase sponge (Callyspongia plicifera) provides refuge for many of the reef's crustaceans, mollusks, worms and fish. Photo: Dr. Gary Williams
Belize's barrier reef houses dozens of colorful corals, some of which have medicinal properties. This species, Plexaura homomalla, contains compounds that can be used to control blood pressure and promote smooth muscle contraction. Photo: Dr. Gary Williams