© Tony Rath / tonyrath.com

News today of conditions in the marine environment seems mostly something to be dreaded; a litany of decline and morbidity.� Whether it be the seemingly intractable force of ocean warming; ocean basin catastrophes like the BP oil spill; the bloody farce called "scientific" whaling by the Japanese; or simply the eerie appearance of lion fish in the Atlantic Basin, the marine conservationist — the enlightened observer, for that matter — can surely be forgiven for having adopted a protective shield of cynicism regarding the future of our planet and our ability to effectively address the challenges of conservation.

So, by way of relief from the weight of these troubles, it was a pleasure to hear of a birthday on July 2nd, happening in Belize, site of the greatest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere.� It was a birthday marking the authorization of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, 25 years ago.� Joining in the commemoration were Belizeans and ex-patriot friends of Belize from around the world.� Among those friends, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

© Tony Rath / tonyrath.com / courtesy Oceana

The story of Hol Chan is laden with good news and useful guidelines for conservation efforts elsewhere.� And there are several positive, encouraging themes in the tale.� First, of course, is the marine reserve, itself.� Hol Chan is exceedingly popular, heavily visited during the course of a year, yielding massive financial rewards to numerous stakeholders.

But beyond that happy circumstance is the story about how Hol Chan came to be the first marine reserve in the country.� It was no accident.� It was part of a strategic plan conjured up by staff and associates of the Wildlife Conservation Society.� And the plan was to start with Hol Chan as a model the public and the government could contemplate, and learn how the benefits and lessons derived from a modest-sized marine park might be extended to the entire coral reef ecosystem.

Today there are small MPAs scattered along the barrier reef from the Mexican border in the north (Bacalar Chico), to the Sapadillo Cays in the extreme south.� It is a "string of pearls" along the barrier reef.

© Tony Rath / tonyrath.com

From the momentum developed following the gazetting of Hol Chan, the notion of comprehensive "coastal zone management" (CZM) was advanced.� The international community took heed, and Belize was granted funds to implement CZM in one of the first tranches of money to come out of the Global Environmental Facility (GEF).

And there was more.� UNESCO agreed to declare major components of the greater Belize coral reef ecosystem as a World Heritage Site.

© Tony Rath / tonyrath.com

And the Wildlife Conservation Society committed itself to adopting one of three coral atolls in Belizean waters, Glovers Reef, to work with the Department of Fisheries for the long-term stewardship of this remarkable marine ecosystem.

So, happy birthday, Hol Chan Marine Reserve.� You've meant a lot.� We're looking forward to another brilliant quarter century.


Archie Carr III recently retired after 30 years with the Wildlife Conservation Society, working mostly in Central America.

National Geographic