GIS student explores the complexity of coral reef conservation while in Belize

Close to the border between Mexico and Belize is the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve, which was established by the Belize Fisheries Department in 1996. This reserve is comprised of the 3 main coastal ecosystems in Belize: coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds. The reserve spans 15,766 acres of land and water and within that 11,379 acres are zoned for general use; 3,560 are zoned for conservation; and 638 acres are zoned as no-take.

The above photo shows a snapshot of the ranger station at the reserve.  There is a Building for the reserve staff (manager, biologist and rangers) to live in as well as a Building for visitors to stay in. There is a museum that introduces the reserve, showcasing the marine wildlife and interesting sites (like Mayan Ruins) around the reserve.  A normal daily routine for the staff involves patrolling (which includes spare time to fish for food), and occasionally the biologist would conduct dives for scientific research purposes. On one of the dives we did during my stay there, we conducted the Synoptic Monitoring Program (SMP), a program designed by the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System Project (MBRSP) to monitor the health of the different ecosystems.  My own research relies on the data from the SMP, and I got to have a hand in the data collection.

One of the issues that strikes me is that there have been Mexican vessels coming down to the reserve to fish in the no-take zones.  They ignore the reinforcement in place and catch whatever they can find in the reserve. They have a high-speed boat that will escape chases from the Fisheries Department. A resort owner in the reserve reported sightings of those vessels, occurring on days where the reserve staff are not on patrol. The reserve staff usually has a three week rotation, where they spend two weeks on the reserve and have one week off. Each Wednesday they have their changeover at San Pedro, so the Reserve boat will be docked in San Pedro all day, and perhaps not surprisingly, the Mexican vessels will be out that day fishing.

My research is about determining a difference in the rate of coral reef recovery between different zones in a Marine Protected Area (MPA), which is determined in part by fish abundance. Illegal fishing can be one of the main factors influencing recovery, which can be difficult to manage as the Fisheries Department has limited man power and vessels to keep a strong enforcement within the area. In fact, this is probably one of the biggest concerns to MPA managers around the world. Authorities can only be in so many places at once, but the illegal fishers are everywhere!  They can be out there when the authorities are not.  

Education about the importance of conserving marine ecosystems is vital, and should be delivered at a broader scale. If the exploitation continues at this rate, life could be gone before we realise it.

Aaron Wong, Master in Geographic Information Systems Applications, VIU