They act as feeding and nursery grounds for approximately 74 species of fish and 178 bird species. They provide habitat for 11 species of amphibians, 30 reptile species and 40 species of mammals. They stabilize soil and serve to dissipate wave energy. Mangroves provide many important ecological and physical functions and despite their importance and the legislation that protects them, it is not surprising to learn that the overall mangrove cover in Belize is decreasing, as this is a worldwide trend.
Belize is home to 4 different species of mangove, the red mangove (Rhizophora mangle), the black mangove (Avicennia germinans), the white mangrove (Laguncalaria racemosa), and the buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus). The red mangrove is most often found along the water on cayes and waterways and is easily identified by the long prop roots that support the plant. The black mangrove is usually found farther away from the water's edge and can be recognized by the small protrusions called pnuematophores that encircle the base of the tree on the ground. These pnuematophores help to facilitate gas exchange as do the long prop roots found on the red mangroves. The white mangrove and buttonwood species are generally located even further away from the edge of the water.
Mangroves have adapted the ability to be tolerant to a wide variety of water conditions, from fresh water rivers like the Belize River to purely saline conditions that are found around the cayes. Mangroves have the ability to either filter out salt before they take up water into their tissues or extrude it out of their system via special pores on their leaves.
Mangroves have evolved adaptations that allow them to flourish in environments that many other species of plants cannot tolerate. These unique plants have been part of the traditional fishing culture of Belize and the Caribbean for years. They have been used for a variety of means, including building traps, marking nets, construction materials for fishing camps and for fuel wood. As the economy of Belize, especially San Pedro has shifted from one supported mainly by fishing to a tourism-dominated one, the impact of the community on the surrounding ecosystem has also shifted. There is generally less direct consumptive use of mangroves for construction materials and firewood now that the town of San Pedro relies mainly on the tourism market for income.
As Hurricane Keith battered San Pedro for two and a half days in October, some residents received first hand lessons on how effective mangroves can be at dissipating the strength of storm waves. Maartin Hoffmann of the Tres Cocos area saw his house being hit with six foot waves while other homes in this neighborhood did not receive any or only minimal wave damage. Hoffmann explains that his house lies in front of a large swath of land that has been cleared of all mangrove coverage in anticipation of a future housing being built.
As the leaves start to slowly reappear on these plants that bore the majority of Hurricane Keith's strength (Estimates range widely from three months to several years before the mangroves will have recovered from the wind and water damage) we should be reminded of the importance that they plan in maintaining equilibrium of both the ecological and physical systems are present on Ambergris Caye.
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