Belize is home to the longest barrier reef in the western hemisphere and has a 7-site composite UNESCO World Heritage site.  Reefs in Belize are protected within a large number of national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and natural monuments.

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Reefs in Belize

Described by Charles Darwin in 1842 as “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies” the 280 km long, 1,400 km2 Belize Barrier Reef is the longest barrier reef in the western hemisphere.  The Barrier Reef has been recognized for its high level of biological diversity, ecological processes and natural beauty by being declared a 7-site composite UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.  Belize’s reef system hosts 500 species of fish, 65 Scleractinian corals, 45 hydroids and 350 molluscs, plus a great diversity of sponges, marine worms and crustaceans. Coral cover has declined from 25-30% live coral cover in the mid-1990s to approximately 11% live coral cover, with 12% fleshy macro-algal cover in 2006, due largely to the severe bleaching and Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Since then, coral cover has slowly recovered to approximately 19% in 2011, but fleshy macroalgal cover also increased to 16% cover. In total, the value of the fisheries and tourism resources and shoreline protection that the reefs of Belize provide has been estimated at US$395 - $559 million per year. Due to extensive coastal development, mangrove clearing and dredging within the World Heritage Site, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System was put on the “List of World Heritage Sites in Danger” in 2009 and its WHS listing is presently under review.

Recreational and commercial use

Tourism in Belize is very diverse as the climate and water conditions are conducive to boating and diving, and there are numerous popular wildlife reserves for hiking and sightseeing, as well as cultural attractions like Maya temples.  Marine tourism is focused in coastal communities such as Placencia and Hopkins, at offshore cayes such as Caye Caulker and San Pedro on Ambergris Caye and at the atolls: Lighthouse Reef, Glover’s Reef and Turneffe. Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, one of many marine protected areas, has the most diverse fish spawning aggregation site and between the months of March – June, snapper spawning attracts whale sharks to the area. This is one of the most predictable whale shark congregations in the Mesoamerican region and is very important for marine tourism. In 2007, reef and mangrove-associated tourism generated an estimated $150-196 million through accommodation, reef recreation and other expenses (12-15% of GDP).  Coastal communities of Belize depend almost exclusively on reef resources and fishing is both a source of food and a livelihood.  Belize does not have a commercial fishing fleet – only artisanal fishing is conducted at a small-scale, even for commercial purposes. Four active Fishermen’s Cooperatives exist in Belize; two based in Belize City and two in the south (located in Placencia and Punta Gorda). All export of products is conducted through Belize City.  Belize’s commercial fisheries are estimated as providing $14-16 million per year.

Threats to reefs

Reefs in Belize are threatened by environmental disturbances and human use. Key environmental threats include hurricanes, coral bleaching events and even earthquakes.  Key threats from human use include overfishing, coastal and caye development, cruise ship tourism, invasive species, terrestrial runoff (including agro-chemicals), ship groundings, and potential future oil exploration.  Climate modelling suggests that reefs in Belize will experience thermal stress severe enough to cause bleaching every year after 2040.  Projections for ocean acidification suggest that declines in coral calcification by 2040 may exceed 10%.  

Reef management

Marine conservation efforts in Belize have grown significantly in the past two decades and there are now 15 marine protected areas throughout the country, covering approximately 250,000 ha. These are well distributed along the barrier reef system and the adjacent offshore atolls allowing for good connectivity between sites. Marine protected areas in Belize fall under several different designations.  There are 9 multiple-use marine reserves legislated under the Belize Fisheries Act (currently under revision) and administered by the Belize Fisheries Department and co-managed in part by NGO’s. The primary co-managing NGOs are Belize Audubon Society (in Belize City), Southern Environmental Association (in Placencia) and Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (in Punta Gorda).  There are also national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and natural monuments. No extraction is allowed in these areas. National park, wildlife sanctuary and natural monument regulations are under the Belize Forest Department, with sites being managed by local NGOs.  There are also 11 Nassau Grouper spawning sites that are protected by law as fully protected marine reserves, some within larger marine reserves.  Bottom trawling has been forbidden since 2010 and there numerous Fisheries Department Regulations including the complete protection of parrotfish, acanthurids, tarpon, bonefish and permit; and management regulations for conch, lobster, Nassau Grouper, sea cucumber and sharks.  Special permits are required to cut mangrove areas and Environmental Impact Assessments are required for medium to large-scale coastal developments.


The information used to prepare this report was compiled from the following reports and articles:

Cooper, E., Burke, L. and Bood, N. (2009) Coastal Capital: Belize. The Economic Contribution of Belize’s Coral Reefs and Mangroves. WRI Working Paper. World Resources Institute, Washington DC, USA. 53 p.

Garcia-Selgado, M., Nava-Martinez, G., Bood, N., McField,M., Molina-Ramirez, A., Yañez-Rivera, B., Jacobs, N., Shank, B., Vasquez, M., Majil,I., Cubas, A., Juan Dominguez-Calderon, J. and Arrivillaga, A. (2008) Status of Coral Reefs in the Mesoamerican Region. In: Wilkinson, C. (ed.). Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2008. Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, Townsville, Australia. pp 253-264.

McField M., Bood, N., Fonseca, A., Arrivillaga, A., Rinos, A.F. and Loreto Viruel, R.M. (2008) Status of the Mesoamerican Reef after the 2005 coral bleaching event. In: Wilkinson, C. and Souter, D. (eds.) Status of Caribbean coral reefs after bleaching and hurricanes in 2005. Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, and Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, Townsville, Australia. pp 45-60.