Article by Erik Hoffner.
UNESCO has announced that the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, which it added to the World Heritage List in 1996, has been removed from its list of ‘sites in danger.’ The system contains the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, offshore atolls popular with divers, hundreds of sandy cayes, estuaries, stretches of mangrove forest, and coastal lagoons.
The system’s seven sites are a significant habitat for threatened species, including sea turtles, manatees, and marine crocodiles. Previously, there was concern that the system was likely to be damaged and degraded, but early this year the Mesoamerican Reef as a whole received an improving bill of health from the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative.
In addition, recent moves that the country of Belize has taken, such as the imposition of a moratorium on offshore drilling in late 2017, encouraged the committee.
Shorebirds like this reddish egret nest among healthy mangroves. Photo by Erik Hoffner for Mongabay.
Likewise, the Committee noted that the strengthening of forestry regulations that protect mangrove forests was a factor – mangroves help keep coastal waters clean and thereby improve the health of nearby coral reefs. They also harbor high levels of biodiversity and sequester much carbon from the atmosphere.
As Mongabay reported in 2017, protecting mangroves is widely supported, including by business owners in the top coastal tourist destination of Amergris Caye, which depends on healthy reefs to draw visitors. Merchants and others pointed out that the island can and should have both extensive mangroves and a healthy economy, including new development if it’s done right and doesn’t remove large areas of trees.
The site was added to UNESCO’s list of sites in danger in 2009 due to the destruction of mangrove forests and marine ecosystems, the looming threat of offshore oil extraction, and unsustainable coastal development.
Banner image: Part of the healthy reef system offshore of Ambergris Caye. Photo by Erik Hoffner for Mongabay