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Island purchase helps safeguard Caribbean jewels

In the diverse coral reefs off southern Belize, two unlikely allies have found a common cause. After months of negotiations, a Kentucky thoroughbred horse breeder agreed to sell most of a small island in the Mesoamerica barrier reef to the Belize group Friends of Nature. CI's Ecotourism department and Global Conservation Fund (GCF) led the negotiations with key support from the Global Marine Conservation program.

The purchase of Little Water Caye, and the subsequent creation by the Belize government of a protected area surrounding the island, help create a network of protected marine sites (see map) and provide a critical staging ground for effective management, research and monitoring.

CI Vice President Marianne Guerin-McManus, who heads GCF, explains that the Little Water Caye agreement is a good example of what her program is trying to accomplish. "GCF finances strategic land deals to protect biologically important areas. In return for GCF support of the island purchase, the government agreed to the creation of an additional 3,360-acre protected area and the consolidation of an 45,657-acre marine park."

Little Water Caye has enormous importance for conservation. It sits between Gladden Spit and Laughing Bird Caye, two of the most important sites for marine biodiversity in the Western Hemisphere. Owning and managing the island, combined with a planned monitoring station, will allow Friends of Nature to patrol the entire area and ensure that it is adequately protected.

"The Mesoamerica barrier reef is the largest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere, and Gladden Spit and Laughing Bird Caye are two jewels in the reef's crown," says Sylvia Earle, CI's executive director for global marine conservation.

Gladden Spit is one of the few predictable congregation sites on the planet for whale sharks, the world's largest fish, and is one of the last spawning sites in the greater Caribbean for the Nassau grouper, as well as mutton, dog and cubera snappers, increasingly rare but commercially exploited fish species. Laughing Bird Caye provides important nesting grounds for the endangered green hawksbill turtle, and the entire area contains critical habitat for the rapidly disappearing queen conch.

Without effective protection, the area's rich marine life has become an alluring target for commercial fishermen and unregulated tourism. Threats include shark finning, commercial fishing during key spawning periods and cruise ships bringing ever-larger groups of tourists who pay little or no user fees and are largely unsupervised.

Curbing the impact of these activities will require increased monitoring and patrols as well as changes at the local level. To this end, CI is supporting Friends of Nature and its work with local fishermen to adopt a ban on fishing during peak spawning seasons.

To help support the local economy, CI is backing the development of low-impact tours and carefully regulated diving as an important alternative to commercial fishing. Says CI's Senior Director for Ecotourism, Costas Christ, "By working with Friends of Nature to establish user and visitation fees, and by encouraging fishermen to switch to tour guide services, we're able to show community members that they can benefit from sustainable tourism activities. Already, a number of local fishermen are taking tourists out to experience the reefs, learn about marine ecology in the area and see the whale sharks."

Projected income from ecotourism and visitor fees is expected to cover most management costs. "The work we have begun in Little Water Caye shows how responsible ecotourism can play a key role in expanding marine protected areas and building strong local support for conservation," says Costas.


© BradleyIreland.com
Whale shark, which gathers in large numbers off the coast of Belize.

© Friends of Nature
Laughing Bird Caye, a critical site for marine biodiversity in the Western Hemisphere.

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