Turneff Atolls declared National Park
Turneffe Atoll is the largest and most biologically diverse coral atoll in the Western Hemisphere. Located 25 miles east of Belize City and surrounded by deep oceanic waters, Turneffe is approximately 30 miles long and 10 miles wide.
The Turneffe Atolls was declared a Marine Reserve yesterday Thursday, November 22, by Hon. Lisel Alamilla, Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development. The commemoration and signing ceremony was held at Old Belize at Mile 4 on the George Price Highway.
The reserve was enacted In September, by Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development.
Minister Alamilla told reporters that over 20 years ago, Turneffe Atoll had been a gap, like a big hole in the marine protected areas system. It was already recognized that it is of ecological importance, and that the area needed to be protected and managed.
However, it was not done. The Atoll is now being recognized and it will be managed like any other marine reserve, and it will be used and enhanced. Ten percent of the area will be a no-take zone, but people can fish in all the other areas. A large monetary contribution was made by the Bert Arelli Foundation, in the millions of dollars. The money will be used to set up the management for the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve
According to the Oceanic Society, the islands, some larger than 5,000 acres, are covered by at least 77 different vegetation types. Mangrove forests are interspersed with brackish lagoons, covering most of the low-lying areas. A reef crest and magnificent shallow coral buttresses are followed by the reef rim on the outer reef drop-off.
Turnoff’s healthy reefs support diverse species including the endemic white spotted toadfish and white lined toadfish. The abundant sponges offer rich feeding grounds for the endangered hawksbill sea turtle and atoll beaches serve as nesting sites for loggerhead and green sea turtles.
Historically, Blackbird Caye South was known to have the largest sea turtle nesting site on the Atoll, and in recent years, loggerhead turtles have successfully nested at the Blackbird Oceanic Field Station beaches.
Among the many reasons that the Turneffe Atoll was given Marine Reserve status are:
*It harbors the largest of the American saltwater crocodile population (approximately 200-300 individuals) and highest concentration of nesting activity in Belize.
*It is the only offshore range for the endangered Antillean manatee. Both single animals and cow-calf pairs have been observed.
*It’s littoral forests and brackish lagoons support amphibians, such as the giant marine toad; reptiles, such as the green tree snake, a sub-species endemic to Turneffe that includes some individuals with a brilliant blue coloration
*It is an important feeding and calving ground for bottlenose dolphins (approximately 150-200), which are common to the lagoon and shallow reefs.
*At least 60 species of birds are found at Turneffe during the height of the migratory season, including 18 species of nesting birds. Endangered and threatened nesting species include the Least Tern, Roseate Tern and the White Crowned Pigeon, which also feed in the littoral forest.
*The large expanses of intact mangrove and sea grass habitat and shallows serve as a huge nursery area for a wide array of fish species, crocodiles, manatees, dolphins and invertebrates. In addition to rich nursery areas, Turneffe has at least three known important fish spawning aggregation sites.
The Oceanic Society said that among many threats to the Turneffe Atoll are that until 2000, commercial development at Turneffe consisted of small-scale dive resorts and a fishing resort. However, in recent years, transfer of land from public to private ownership has escalated deforestation of prime natural habitats.
Lack of protection for the largely intact natural forest and clearing for development presents the greatest threat to the survival of all terrestrial wildlife on Turneffe.
Rainbow parrotfish, the largest herbivorous fish in the Atlantic Ocean, are totally dependent on mangrove nursery areas, and are becoming locally extinct in some locations due to mangrove clearance, which also threatens reef health through algal overgrowth.
Illegal fishing is a growing problem, exacerbated by the lack of any enforcement presence on the atoll. In particular, it involves the harvesting of undersized and out-of-season marine species. Illegal fishing gear harms non-target species such as manatees and sea turtles.
However, onshore conservation and other regulations will now be enacted and proper monitoring will be carried out by the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve Management.
Turneffe Atoll is officially a Marine Reserve
Turneffe Atoll is now a Marine Reserve after a commemoration ceremony was held on Thursday November 22nd to officially declare the atoll the latest marine reserve in Belize. In September of this year, the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development Honorable Lisel Alamilla took a proposal to the Belize Cabinet to have the Turneffe Atoll declared a marine reserve. Prime Minister of Belize Dean Barrow, along with his Cabinet, endorsed, supported and enacted the proposal which was finally signed into law.
The newly form Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve spans over 325,000 acres and now becomes the largest Marine Reserve in Belize and is considered one of the largest and most biologically diverse atoll in the Caribbean. Speaking at the event, Minister Alamilla said that the signing is historical. “Well, I think it’s really a historical event because from my understanding, the Turneffe Atoll has been a gap, like a big hole in the marine protected areas system of Belize. It was already recognized that it is of ecological importance, and that we needed to protect and manage it. But for whatever reasons, that had not transpired, so today, that was made possible. So, it’s really – some people are telling me that more than 20 years ago – it was recognized that this was an area which really needed to be protected. It will be managed like any other marine reserve. Really, the way we manage and utilize marine reserves is that it’s really to enhance them; it’s a tool to manage the fisheries sector. Only 10% of the area is a no-take zone. So all the other areas, people can fish in and conduct other activities. So, it’s really more enforcement, monitoring and research going on. We were fortunate enough to have gotten a major contribution for the Bertarelli Foundation in millions of dollars, which will be used to set up the management for Turneffe Atoll,” disclosed Alamilla.
Earlier this month, Belize was listed as being among eight countries listed by the European Commission as having a poor track record in dealing with illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The report indicated that that Belize, who was not yet blacklisted, is being given an opportunity to formally respond, refute and take measures to rectify the situation. According to Alamilla, while a separate piece of legislation will be presented to the Solicitor General that will address the issues highlighted by the European Commission, the enactment of Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve is a step in the right direction and is a form of commitment that Belize is prepared to look at positives measures to regulate the use of its waters, especially in the fisheries industry.
For his part, the Minister of Tourism and Culture, Hon Manuel Heredia highlighted the importance of the atoll indicating that the making of the Turneffe atoll into a marine reserve show that they are giving back to Mother Nature. “Turneffe is known worldwide as being one of the most sought after destination for sport fishing, fly fishing and scuba-diving. It is a high quality ecotourism destination for the country where tourists pay a premium to come and enjoy the natural wonders of our pristine marine life. This, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly the type of tourism that the master plan sets to achieve by 2030. The resorts in the area employ approximately a hundred and fifty tourism workers and recent estimates show that Turneffe generates approximately U.S. twenty-one million per year from tourism and fishing activity. So we can easily see Turneffe as one of the jewels of the Mesoamerican Reef System. It gives us so much and I am glad that today we are here to recognize its importance and we are giving something back to it,” said Heredia.
Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve will seek to improve the enforcement and sustainable management of Turneffe’s commercial fishery. In addition, it will also seek to improve control and monitoring of future development. The legislation will also seek to address and ensure sustainable management of the atoll’s environmental, economic and social benefits for Belize as well as provide for scientific research and environmental monitoring for the atoll. It will allow for the support of catch and release sport fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling and other sustainable tourism activities.
The declaration of a marine protected area around the Turneffe Atoll has been made possible by funding from the Bertarelli Foundation, the Geneva-based family foundation of Dona, Ernesto and Kirsty Bertarelli, which will also provide part of an endowment fund to ensure Turneffe’s protection into the future. The signing ceremony for the declaration of the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve took place inside the Old Belize Jungle Pavilion under the theme “Sustainable Development in Action.”