Off shore oil exploration: there have been numerous meetings, debates, draft policies and even a people's referendum in 2012 regarding this issue. But it is still an area of contention between conservation NGO's and the government - specifically over existing oil concessions covering offshore blocks. While that discussion is happening at the official level, what are those communities who will be directly affected by oil exploration saying? Well there is one fishing community that is speaking out on this issue. We traveled along with the Belize Coalition to Save our Natural Heritage to Port Honduras Marine Reserve on Friday. We spoke to some of the fishers and rangers stationed out at the Cayes in the reserve and they told us it is a major concern for their livelihood and to the marine environment. But we went even deeper and found out that oil exploration isn't the only threat. Courtney Weatherburne found out what those other threats are and how they are managing.
Courtney Weatherburne reporting
Port Honduras Marine Reserve: it's about a mile and a half North of Punta Gorda. The entire reserve is 160 square miles and home to a number of fish species, sea turtles, even manatees and dolphins.
Port Honduras was declared a marine reserve in 2000 and since then research and conservation efforts have been implemented.
A ranger's station was constructed on Abalone Caye in the reserve to coordinate these efforts and monitor the major zones in the area.
Looking out from the watch tower at the station, you can see the Guatemalan coastline to the South
And Honduras to the east. Although programs have been implemented to preserve marine life, there are still a number of issues affecting the reserve.
"Right now we are on West Snake Caye, about 4 miles from the Ranger Station. Now this Caye is known as the recreational spot where locals and tourists come to enjoy the pristine waters but while this Caye may look like the perfect vacation and destination there's a troubling story beyond the coast line."
That story begins with the heavy and rapid erosion in the conservation zone in the reserve. West Snake Caye is just one island that has lost a significant amount of beach front over the years.
Looking at Abalone Caye where the station is, the team had to fill what is known as gabion baskets with rocks and line them across the caye to create a barrier - the stick you see beneath the surface of the water is where the caye used to be.
Mario Muschamp, Protected area Manager, TIDE
"There was a climate change. The only thing you can see currently from that is the erosion taken place along the coastline mainly from Monkey River and Punta Negra area and then on some of the islands around the reserve such as this one that we are on right now where we have our Ranger base and as you see we are trying to see what we can do to halt that erosion somewhat. Washing away the sediments, it can happen impact sea grass beds and coral, which a lot of the resources depend on that around here especially the fishing. We need to have healthy sea grass and corals to maintain the fisheries here. It's tough like that, the sedimentation, the contamination will impact that."
And this is a wide spread issue on other islands in the reserve including Punta Negro.
Ray Jacobs, Councillor, Punta Negra
"This used to be about 40 feet outside. Now it's washed all away, the trees are gone. It washed about 40 feet inside and it continues North, South all over."
The effects are felt all over because the fishing community is impacted as well
Sandy Parchue, Fisher
"I think the amount of fish right now is difficult now than a couple of years ago. A couple years ago you didn't have to come way out here to catch fish, but now sometimes we have to way to Deep River to catch fish."
Paula Jacobs Williams, Fisher
"These days it's just the changes of the weather like, you could say climate change. It's very rough. We really can't go fishing like we used to."
These issues are compounded when the issue of illegal incursions by Guatemalans in these waters is introduced
Edwin Cabrero, Ranger, Port Honduras Marine Reserve
"Two of the major problems we had here in Port Honduras is that we have guys coming in from Guatemala. The nearest town Puerto Barrios,
Livingston is like 45 minute boat ride. From Puerto Barrios to Livingston to here. The problem was that some of these guys have obtain the fisher folk licenses. They live in Guatemala and the problem was that they would come in Port Honduras and they would fish during the day and in the evening they would go back. They sell their product in Guatemala. It didn't benefit the country at all. They were just extracting."
Dennis Garbutt, Owner, Garbutt Marine
"I used to see the area with a lot more fish, a lot more activity as it relates to going out there and getting marine product. I grew up as a fisherman and we used to come fish and take it to Punta Gorda to the market and things like that to make a living, but one of the things that change my family from doing commercial fishing is the fact that there's too much fisherman out there and the fishing pressure have always been increased. I saw gill net been introduced, which cause some major devastation to the fish population especially like snook and mackerel and that type of thing and that pressure was coming more from the people in Guatemala."
Apart from these, there is an even bigger concern and that is the long standing issue of off shore oil exploration.
"In terms of oil exploration and the potential threats that we are foreseeing. If that comes our way, for 1, in case there's a spill, what that will impact for us as you heard from Edwin earlier Port Honduras Reserve is an excellent nursery habitat for important commercial marine species such as fin fish, lobster, conch, sea cucumber and oil exploration will impact this for the fishers and users of this area."
Paula Jacobs Williams, Fisher
"I believe that Belize is small and if we have an oil spill, that would be the end of our fishing industry."
Celia Mahung, TIDE
"Port Honduras Marine Reserve is the bread basket for many; for fishers, commercial fishers, for recreational fishers, sports fishers, tour guides and so it is very valuable Marine Reserve for our stake holders, that's how they make a living and it's important for them to continue to make a living from the Port Honduras Marine Reserve and we will continue to work with them in the management of that resource."
The Belize Coalition's main concern is that an oil concession to Providence Energy Ltd includes Port Honduras Marine Reserve but when we spoke to a representative from TIDE, she told us no sign of work or oil exploration has been seen in the area.