PHYSICAL FEATURES & CLIMATE
Ambergris Caye and the New Bacalar Chico National Park
After visiting numerous offices in Belize City and Belmopan, I was eager to get back out to the cayes to see the new and proposed marine reserves. My first port of call was San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, where I headed to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve Office, on Caribe Street. Everyone going out to the reef should pay a visit here first. The staff consists of mostly young, highly educated Belizeans whose tremendous enthusiasm, together with the superb displays and news of the latest projects, will enable you to get the most out of your visit.
Dylan Gomez, a biologist working in the newly declared Bacalar Chico National Park, is helping develop the park's management plan. This will include provision for certain areas to be open to non-motor craft only. Visitors will transfer from larger skiffs to canoes, minimizing disturbance in the narrow, shallow mangrove lagoons and channels, Gomez says.
The park, which opened officially August 23, 1996, comprises a 15,000-acre marine reserve and 12,000 acres of terrestrial reserve. A headquarters building with office space for a marine biologist, a terrestrial biologist, and two marine rangers has been completed, and a visitor center (with composting toilets) is being built. The concrete jetty and walkway here are remnants of the former Pinkerton Estate which once held much of the land in this area.
At present the park is accessible only by sea, from points on Ambergris Caye, from Sarteneja and elsewhere on the mainland off the Bay of Chetumal (several hours by boat), and from the Mexican port town of X'calak, only about 25 minutes away by boat.
I joined Gomez on a visit to Bacalar Chico, calling at a remote fisheries monitoring station where officials check that catches are within legal limits. Green and loggerhead turtles come ashore to nest between Rocky Point and Robles Point. This alone would be sufficient reason to establish the reserve; more loggerheads nest here than anywhere else in Belize and the only other significant nesting site is a small area on Half Moon Caye. There are at least 187 species of birds, including many Yucatán endemics, and the 40 mammal species include all five of Belize's cats.
Many hope that the park rangers will be granted the powers of Fisheries Officers, providing much-needed support in monitoring and enforcement of the law.
The park also has several Maya sites. We visited the site of San Juan, near the northwest corner of Ambergris Caye. The site was an important transshipment point in Maya times, and the ancient sea wall is clearly visible beneath the surface. The beach must have been a scene of bustling activity at one time, as goods were unloaded from canoes paddled down the rich, heavily populated river valleys of Belize, and transferred to large trading canoes, capable of sea journeys. Plenty of goods must have been damaged, too - visitors will scrunch over an entire beach made of broken pottery. San Juan is set to be the site of the new ranger station and visitor center. The park's northern boundary is the Bacalar Chico channel, a narrow, mangrove-lined canal, dug and cleared by the Maya to avoid a long journey around the southern tip of the caye. Mexico, on the other bank, is so close that if you're in a boat you can almost touch the mangroves on either side - there is a strong chance that a comparable area of Quintana Roo will also be declared a national park by the Mexican government.
San Pedro's tour guides, who stand to benefit most from the park, are keen supporters, but fishermen also see the advantage of increased protection for vital breeding areas in the mangroves. Daniel Nuñez, who leads tours to Maya sites in the park says "We need more protected areas, and the rules need to be enforced. My brother is still a fisherman, and he's trying hard to save mangroves on his land, but people have come and cut them down, trying to squat on the land."
Changa Paz, of Amigos del Mar dive shop, even suggests a moratorium on lobster and conch fishing, to allow stocks to recover, and hopes for a southward extension of Hol Chan Marine Reserve, to join with the proposed Caye Caulker Marine Reserve.
That is a sentiment echoed by Chris Allnatt of Blue Hole Dive Center. Both guides are determined to play their role in conservation on Ambergris Caye. Paz has installed dozens of mooring buoys near the reef (at US$250each), both at his own expense and helped by donations, and Allnatt recently organized a beach clean up. "The amount of plastic garbage was incredible," he says. "Although a lot of it is thrown overboard from passing ships, much is generated within the town. Proper enforcement of the new litter laws, with big fines, would make people respect the law, and the message would get across. The same message could be applied to the fishing regulations."
Other San Pedranos, who don't wish to be named for fear of repercussions, told me that in many cases the people who catch illegal fish and lobster are protected from prosecution by political and family influence. The clear message was that while most people support increased legislation to protect the marine environment, they felt that the government was not doing enough to enforce the existing laws.
This seems to be particularly relevant with respect to the Mangrove Regulations, 1989, which prohibit any "alteration" of mangroves on any land except with a permit. Simon Zisman, a British geographer working in Belize, has recently completed the second edition of his highly recommended Directory of Belizean Protected Areas and Sites of Nature Conservation Interest. In this book, whenever he writes that a site's mangroves are "protected by Forestry Department regulations" the statement is almost always accompanied by the words "although the relevant regulations are not being enforced." I would have thought by now that everyone in Belize was convinced of the importance of protecting mangroves. They provide essential breeding grounds and nurseries for commercially important fish; mangroves and the adjacent seagrass beds retain and filter sediment from river runoff, increasing the clarity of water on the reefs; they are the first line of storm defence, absorbing the power of the wind. For these and many other reasons studies have shown coastal mangroves to have a economic value ranging from US$9,000 to $25,000 per acre.
In Belize I've read leaflets, listened to seminars and workshops and even attended a week-long conference dedicated to showing the tourism industry the economic and conservation importance of mangroves, yet everywhere mangroves are cut indiscriminately. What's going wrong? I visited Rafael Manzanero, a senior Forest Officer, in the Conservation Division of the Ministry of Natural Resources in Belmopan, to find out. He said there is a need to raise public awareness: "This worked some years ago, when the Mangrove Regulations were initiated, but interest has slowed down recently. We're having a new, nationwide campaign on the need to apply for a permit before mangroves are cut, and at the same time the existing regulations are being strengthened, with higher application fees and heavier fines for non-compliance. At the moment the application fee does not cover the necessary site visit, costing us money we should be spending on conservation work."
In a workshop across from his office he showed me several huge new signs advising anyone thinking of cutting mangroves to get a permit first. The education campaign is under way. It remains to be seen if real enforcement will follow.
I'll let Simon Zisman have the last word on mangroves - for the moment. "Belize is globally important for its reef. There should, therefore, be a presumption against development in the coastal zone...unless it provides Belize with economic benefits that are high and sustainable in comparison to the value of mangroves and other coastal environments being converted."
For more on Bacalar Chico, click here.
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