GAMBLING WITH EXTINCTION
In 2010, a casino development threatened the last known breeding site of the smalltooth sawfish within the Belize Barrier Reef World Heritage Site. The RRF supported a rapid assessment of the site. As a result, construction of the casino was halted and recognition from the Belize government increased long-term protection for the reef.
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At 185 miles long, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage site in Central America is the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, and second longest in the world. Known as the ‘jewel in the crown of Belize’, the huge biodiversity of the reef has attracted prosperity to the area, and it serves as a hub for sports fishing, commercial fishing and tourism - sectors that benefit from the continued health of the ecosystem when carefully managed. The reef is home to over 500 tropical fish species including many threatened species, including the Antillean manatee (Endangered) and the mysterious smalltooth sawfish (Critically Endangered).
The smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) was once common in the coastal waters of Belize and the adjacent countries of Mexico and Guatemala, but in preceeding decades its population had declined to the point where it became locally extinct across most of its former range. However, reports suggested that the species was still breeding in one known remaining site, within the Belize Barrier Reef World Heritage site.
I would like to reiterate the difference the RRF funding has made to increasing awareness of the importance of the area and the maintenance of intact ecosystems... the impacts of the project have gone far beyond the initial response to unsustainable development.
Within this context, in 2010 the RRF was approached by a local NGO ‘Wildtracks’, who were concerned that a sudden new casino development was threatening the integrity of the site, including the last suspected breeding site of the Critically Endangered smalltooth sawfish.
Most of the damage would come from clearing mangroves to access the chosen location, and the dredging of the development site itself. The location of the development would affect the last remaining sawfish nursery, which was thought to be in the area, and therefore threatened the survival of the species across its range.
As the development got underway, concerns mounted that the initial impact assessment had not been properly conducted. This meant that mitigation measures to protect the site from significant damage as a result of development activities had not been identified.
RRF funding enabled Wildtracks to conduct rapid assessments to demonstrate the importance of the site for the smalltooth sawfish. With the assistance of the local fishing community, the assessments found anecdotal information confirming the presence of smalltooth sawfish at the site. The surveys further revealed the area was a significant nursery site for sharks and rays, and also discovered the first bull shark nursery in Belize.
As a result of the funding, Wildtracks was able to present a strong case supporting the significance of the site for biodiversity and demonstrate that the initial environmental impact assessment was fundamentally flawed. This ultimately led to the termination of the casino development.
In addition to halting the casino development, the World Heritage site was afforded greater long-term protection. The data collected as part of the RRF-funded assessment were submitted to the authorities and are now used to ensure that only developments that take full account of the biodiversity value of the site will be considered.
On the basis of the RRF survey results, Wildtracks established a longer-term conservation project focused on the significant shark populations, which has subsequently received support from a major international NGO.
Fishers also benefitted from training opportunities and greater interaction with the site’s management authorities during the project, which led to the development of a community fishery plan, supported by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
At a national level, the RRF-supported results have informed new national legislation on mangrove protection, and project stakeholders have become recognised as a credible lobbying voice by decision-makers in government.
Finally, the RRF grant catalysed the formation of new alliances that have formed the basis for more collaborative management between the protected areas that comprise the World Heritage site. This in turn has led to benefits to the wider seascape and, following transboundary collaboration with Mexican counterparts, the group has become a regionally significant voice for marine conservation.