August 3, 2005

Action Alert: threat of mangrove decimation, Placencia, Belize

To: Earth Island Institute, Greenpeace, Sirenian International, Oceanic Society, International Union of Concerned Scientists, Belize Zoo, Natural Resources Defense Council, Wildlife Trust and other defenders of the environment.

Synopsis

The Belizean government is in the process of overlooking existing wetland protections of mangroves and coastal estuaries in an effort to "create" saleable lots for commercial interests. At issue is Placencia’s inner lagoon (Stann Creek District), which supports extensive mangrove forests, a vital fishery, important and viable populations of Antillean Manatees (highest density in Belize), Morelet's crocodile (endangered), several species of dolphin, and is an important migratory stopover for numerous species of wading birds.

We need your help to stop this environmentally destructive action. Relevant information and “talking points” are provided below. The weight of your organizations may help derail this boondoggle perpetrated by political cronyism and nepotism. Government officials are quietly paving the way to dredge, fill and drain wetlands “less than 6’ deep;” a meaningless boundary that includes nearly the entire inner lagoon and hundreds of hectares of viable wetland habitat. Please contact the agencies list below and express your concern that such environmentally destructive policies be curtailed.

Please contact the following government offices to protest:

Honorable John Briceno Position, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment, Commerce and Industry,
Mailing Address: Market Square, Belmopan City, Belize
Telephone (501) 822-3286 or (501) 822 2249
Fax (501) 822-2333
E-mail: info@mnrei.gov.bz

Department of Environment
# 10/12 Ambergris Ave.
Belmopan City, Belize
Telephone: (501) 822-2816, or 822-2542
Fax: 501-822-2862
E-mail: envirodept@btl.net

Honorable Rodwell Ferguson
Minister of State in the Ministry of Education, Youth, Sports and Culture
Belmopan, Belize
Email: shelika@btl.net

Honorable Godfrey Smith
Minister of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Tourism
Belmopan, Belize

Mr. Armin Cansino
Commissioner of Lands Department
Belmopan, Belize


And the following news organizations

The Reporter
% Ms. Ann-Marie Williams
P.O. Box 707, Belize City, Belize
Email: editor@reporter.bz

Meredith (Meb) Cutlack
Email: cutlack@btl.net

The Amandala
P.O. Box 15, Belize City, Belize
Email: amandala@btl.net


For more information contact or to suggest names to be added to the list of contacts, please contact:

Email: <jevens@svn.net>

% Avocet Research Associates
P.O. Box 839
Point Reyes Station, California 95956
USA



Supporting information

The Threat

The secretive policy has bee promulgated recently by a corrupt coterie of Belizean government officials and real estate developers to create saleable land parcels by draining and filling mangrove forests along the inner shore of Placencia’s Big Lagoon. (Developers have already begun destruction in the northern reaches of the lagoon near “Plantation.”) Such schemes are common in the tropics, as in wetlands everywhere, and have contributed to the degradation of marine habitats, declines in fish populations, and endangerment of wildlife species. If allowed to proceed, the conversion of wetlands to uplands will have far-reaching and environmentally-destructive consequences that will extend out to the coral reef and into the pockets of people who depend on a healthy environment for their livelihood and well being.

The ecological system that supports a vital fishery, a healthy reef, and, in turn, attracts colorists to the Placencia peninsula and the off-shore cayes is at-risk.

Ecological values of mangrove habitat

“Mangroves have numerous ecological significances, including their role in soil formation by stabilizing coastlines; filtering upland runoff; providing habitat for juvenile marine organisms, coastal birds and reptiles; and increasing offshore productivity by producing large amounts of detritus. They provide a shelter and residence area for many threatened and endangered species (manatees, crocodiles and species of birds). Additional benefits to man include its ability to act as a natural storm buffer, act as nurseries for commercially important fisheries, and for tourism because of their aesthetic value.” (Belize Coastal Zone Management Authority-1981.)

Mangrove forests play an integral role in the marine ecosystem—as nurseries and breeding grounds for fish and marine invertebrates, as filtering systems for nutrients, as sediment traps and buffers, and as habitat for wildlife. Additionally, mangrove forests provide the nutrient basis for the food web of the lagoon, near shore sea grass habitats, and the coral reef system itself. The larger the extent of the mangroves, the greater benefit provided to coastal environments.

Mangrove forests have evolved and continue to interact in harmony with coral reefs, sea grass beds, and even beaches; each has a dependent relationship on the other for health, sustainability, and survival, but mangrove forests are particularly crucial to the health of fisheries and coral reefs.

Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse marine ecosystems on earth, second only to terrestrial rainforests. They are very delicately balanced systems, depending on the interaction of hard and soft corals, sponges, anemones, snails, rays, crabs, lobsters, turtles, dolphins, and other sea life. The interactions do not end at the reef’s edge; there is interplay between all the sub tidal and intertidal habitats, from the mangrove to the reef and beyond.

As mangrove leaves drop into tidal waters they are colonized immediately by marine organisms (fungi and bacteria) that convert carbon compounds into nitrogen-rich, natural fertilizer. This decomposing plant material (detritus)., now covered with colonies of microorganisms, becomes food for small animals such as worms, snails, shrimp, mollusks, mussels, barnacles, clams, oysters, and some small fish. These detritus eaters are food for carnivores, including crabs, birds, and larger fish—links in a food chain that ultimately includes man.

In addition, the mangroves' root systems trap suspended sediments, thereby protecting reefs from terrestrial runoff and other forms of pollution. The root systems act as hydrological and biological buffers, regulating and filtering the flow of water and nutrients into the marine system. In return, the reefs serve as wave and storm breakers, helping to protect the mangroves and other coastal environments from forceful impacts.

Seagrasses are aquatic flowering plants that make up a large part of the marine food web. Like the mangroves, they are also spawning and nursery grounds for many marine organisms that live in the reef. They too are dependant on mangrove ecosystems. Mangroves foster the growth of seagrasses by slowing down the velocity and forcefulness of the water, thereby preventing fine silt from clouding the water and blocking the sunlight. In this way, the seagrass is able to photosynthesize and flourish under calm, sunny conditions, allowing for perfect nursery grounds for coral reef species.

Critical habitat for threatened species

In Florida it has been estimated that 75% of the game fish and 90% of the commercial species rely on the mangrove system. In Belize, these percentages are likely similar. The shallow intertidal reaches of mangrove wetlands offer refuge and nursery grounds for juvenile fish, crabs, shrimps, and mollusks. Mangroves are also prime nesting and migratory sites for hundreds of bird species. In Belize there are over 500 species of birds recorded in mangrove areas. Many of the wildlife species that depend on healthy mangrove forests for their continued existence are threatened or endangered. Some of those species that will be most directly impacted by removal and reduction of mangrove habitat from the Big Lagoon include:

Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus)
Status: Endangered under the Belize Wildlife Protection Act of 1981, the USA- ESA, Marine Mammal Protection Act, IUCN Red List, etc.
Manatees inhabit the coastal and inland waterways of Central America, the Greater Antilles, and the northern coast of South America. Their habitats are fragmented and relatively little is known about this sub-species when compared with the Florida subspecies. Manatees are threatened by loss of habitat, poaching, entanglement with fishing gear, and increased boating activity. Belize harbors the highest known density of Antillean manatees in the Caribbean, and according to Silenian International, may be the last stronghold for the subspecies. Big Lagoon has one of the largest surviving subpopulations and is therefore of international concern. Belize's Department of Forestry, Department of Fisheries, and the Coastal Zone Management Authority conduct aerial surveys for manatees as part of a joint manatee research program with Mexico (Salisbury 1991, Gibson 1995, Auil 1998).


Morelet’s Crocodile Crocodylus moreletii
Status: Endangered: ESA; IUCN Red list.
Mainly areas of freshwater, including swamps and marshes in forested areas. More recently found in brackish water around coastal areas. Juveniles utilize dense cover. Adults are known to aestivate in burrows during the adverse conditions associated with the dry season. Range overlaps with C. acutus , but relationships between the two species are poorly known. Relatively common in Big Lagoon and surrounding mangrove habitats, this species is a favorite sighting on wildlife trips (ecotours) around the lagoon and in Monkey River. Cites reports that Morelet’s Crocodile is “conservation dependent,” that is, measures focusing on protection of mangrove habitats will be necessary to sustain populations. There has been a reduction in density near human population centers in Belize, for example, and although the species is said to be widely distributed in Mexico, it appears that habitat destruction may be causing a steady decline.

Sea turtles
Three different species of sea turtles are endangered; the loggerhead, green and hawksbill. The Hawksbill is the most endangered sea turtle in the Caribbean. Nesting at Gale’s Point, Hawksbills undoubtedly forage in the lagoon. The hawksbill turtle is legally protected (endangered) but the green and loggerhead are legally fished during open season. Marine or sea turtles have been hunted for food as their meat and eggs are considered a delicacy. Their beautiful shells are used in making ornaments and jewelry. In addition, the encroachment of hotels on their nesting sites has led to a dramatic decrease in their number. Important nesting sites are found at North Ambergris Caye, Sapodilla Range and Manatee Bar, however turtles forage in Placencia’s lagoon and a decrease in its productivity by removal of critical mangrove habitat will further reduce sea turtle populations in Stann Creek and Toledo districts.

Dolphins
Status: all species are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Three species occur in Belize and all have been recorded in Placencia lagoon: Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stenella frontalis), and rough-toothed dolphin (Steno bredanensis).

References and interested parties

http://www.mangrove.org

http://earthisland.org/map/mngec.htm

http://www.sirenian.org/westindian.html

http://www.friendsofnaturebelize.org

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BelizeManatees/

http://www.earthwatch.org/expeditions/

http://www.belizezoo.org/zoo

http://www.belizenet.com/coastal/6.html

https://www.nrdc.org/wildlife/habitat/belize.asp

http://www.wildlifetrust.org/manpro.htm

http://worldwildlife.org/wildplaces/mr/results/habitats.cfm

http://www.coastalzonebelize.org/

Literature cited.

Abercrombie, C.L., D. Davidson, C.A. Hope and D.E. Scott. 1980. Status of Morelet's Crocodile Crocodylus moreleti in Belize. Biol. Conserv. 17:103-113.

Auil, N. 1998. Belize Manatee Recovery Plan. BZE/92/G31. UNEP. 67pp.

Belize Biodiversity Information System-Morelet's Crocodile. Belize: Wildlife Conservation Society. 01/19/98. Accessed (Date Unknown) at http://fwie.fw.vt.edu/wcs/030970.HTM .

Britton, A. 2002. "Crocodilian Species-Morelet's Crocodile (Crocodylis Moreletii)" (On-line ). Crocodilian Species List. Accessed 03/18/03 at http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/natsci/herpetology/brittoncrocs/csl.html .

Charnock-Wilson, J. 1968. The manatee in British Honduras. Oryx 9: 293-294.

Linberg, K. & J. Enriquez. 1994. An analysis of ecotourism’s economic contribution to conservation and development in Belize. Comprehensive Report, Ministry of Tourism and the Environment.

O’Shea, T. & C.A. Salisbury. 1991. Belize: A last stronghold for manatees in the Caribbean. Oryx 25:3. 154-164.

Platt, S (1994). Crocodylus moreletii and Crocodylus acutus in Belize. Crocodile Specialist Group Newsletter 13(4): 15-1.

Ross, J.P. 2000. Crocodylus moreletii . In: IUCN 2004. 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. <www.redlist.org >. Downloaded on 25 July 2005 .