Dredging Out of Control on Ambergris Caye

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 11, No. 26            July 5, 2001

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Mountain of sand located near Mexico Rocks

"Dredging of the sea on the front side of Ambergris Caye is out of control," exclaimed Daniel Guerrero, as he led a boatload of news reporters along the island's coastline. Born and raised in San Pedro and a member of the San Pedro Tour Guide Association, he and many others are "fed up" with the destruction of our natural resources for private as well as government gain. Fisherman Jose Gonzalez agreed, shaking his head as he captained our boat from Boca Ciega, five miles south of San Pedro Town up the northern coast of Ambergris Caye, stopping at various points of interest on this familiarization trip. Dredging of sand from the seabed is not the entire issue; it is more specifically where and why it is being done and its long term effects.

    Deemed a necessity after both Hurricanes Mitch in 1998 and Keith in 2000, the dredging was permitted for the sole purpose of reclaiming beach on public lands, for the sake of the community and the tourism industry. However, then and now, nearly nine months after the last storm, dredging continues on all parts of the island. Beautification of private property (purchased or for sale), filling of lots and the high retail value of this pearly white commodity are the elements driving this mostly illegal activity using "Crown Lands". The wave action caused by the increased depth of shoreline water due to illegal dredging will be devastating during the tidal surge in the next tropical storm. The silt being dredged up by this activity naturally flows in an outgoing tide to the country's "cash cow," the barrier reef. This layer of fine "mud," if not caught and contained by seagrass, is just sitting on the seabed to be churned up again and again by wave action every time the wind blows. What is worse, this silt, which can be seen flowing for miles, inevitably lands on top of living corals. Basically, corals then react by "spitting" out a mucus substance so they can breathe. This creates more of a problem as this mucus is highly susceptible to bacterial growth that can eventually suffocate the coral. It is a fact that sedimentation is the biggest threat to any coral reef. This may seem insignificant to some, but as the reef dies, so may the future of Belize.

View from the top of the "sand mountain" located near Mexico Rocks
Illegal dredging practices can have detrimental effects on adjacent property
Dredge shown is not the legal limit from shore

    Sedimentation not only affects coral reefs, but the fishing industry, our second biggest source of economic income on Ambergris Caye. The delicate balance of this ecosystem was recently shown in the affect the last storm had on lobster production. Many other marine life habitats are being destroyed in the process of sedimentation. Dredging has also directly affected the bait local fishermen use. Sardines are found in the seagrass beds, which are destroyed due to illegal dredging. The other industry impacted is the biggest and most profitable - tourism. As the silt kills the corals that most tourists come to marvel at and visibility is degraded  in our azure blue waters, divers will find a more pristine destination. Many believe "Nature's best kept secret" will be exactly that - unknown, at least on Ambergris Caye, if this current illegal dredging is allowed to continue.

    The Geology and Petroleum Department under the administration of the Ministry of Natural Resources is responsible for the issuance of "mining" permits. It was learned that to legally dredge, one must apply for the permit designating the area, the type and amount of material extracted, the material's estimated value, and provide pertinent documents regarding land ownership, etc. The site must then be inspected and conditions met regarding dredging. It was stated that San Pedro Town Council's recommendation on where dredging the seabed take place is 300 feet from shore. This location, at times, may be too close to the reef, so Geology reportedly will allow 150 feet or more in certain situations. The intended depth and amount of material to be dredged in the area designated are also taken into consideration when granting permits. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was stated to be needed only when the amount of material to be dredged exceeds 16,000 cubic yards. This amount requires a license, and more detailed information and documentation. It was reported that Quarry Permits are issued for 10,000 cubic yards or less and do not require an EIA. The size of the dredge to be used is also recommended by the inspector. In some areas, containment structures such as dikes, must encompass the dredging to prevent run off. Safety measures are to be followed and curtains to contain silt are always a condition. A "Performance Bond" of $3000BZ is required to ensure the applicant adheres to the area and terms applied for in the permit or they run the risk this money will not be refunded. It was added that dredging of channels for boat access to property is not usually recommended.

    During the investigation of problem areas along the front of the island, several sites revealed dredging beside docks for this very reason. One site had actually moved large coral heads to access their land. Craters in the seabed left by dredging sand were at times only 20 to 30 feet from the beach. From the south to the north end of the island, there were too many dredge sites to even mention names. Some of the worst offenders are land speculators who are making their real estate more "aesthetically pleasing" to buyers. Dredging too close to the shoreline automatically causes higher waves from the deeper waters it creates and ultimately this wave action reclaims the sand initially dredged for. Thus some beachfront property owners were filling in their lots for the second time. Others build sea walls to protect their beach, which are considered another environmental erosion hazard for the coastline and require a permit as well. Dredging may also prove to have a dual effect on the environment as large stones are being removed from the sea in the back of the island to build or reinforce seawalls on the front. To date it is uncertain what effect the removal of stones will have on this particular marine environment.

    Another apparent result of dredging so close to shore was the loose seabed which reporters sunk approximately three feet into during an attempt to go on shore. At this particular site a crane was reducing a huge pile of sand by loading it into dump trucks to be hauled away for profit. With a lack of seagrass to hold things in place, and mud and silt sedimentation now replacing the sea bottom, large tidal surges take their toll in big storms and create wide channels that cut far into the coastline. Examples of this were witnessed on the southern end of the island and appeared to cause many adverse side effects to adjacent land owners.

    The amounts of sand that may be dredged was very evident as we observed a literal "mountain" of sand on a piece of property on the southern tip of the Mexico Rocks area. Standing on the top of this sand monolith one could look down on the roof of a house on the next property and over the tops of trees, almost on eye level with electric poles in the area. Evidence of where dredging had taken place was on our immediate left as we walked the dock to this site. This side of the newly constructed dock, obviously dredged for boat access, contained water levels which appeared to be four to six feet deep that continued to the shoreline. For the time being, the seabed on the right side remained intact with normal water levels of up to two feet.

    In the early development of this island, a Proposed Ambergris Caye Master Plan was established by professional consultants working with the local government. Under section F - Coastline Management it reads: "It is necessary to discourage the proliferation of piers on the eastern side in the interest of curtailing the destruction of beach seagrass, seabed erosion and sedimentation. Suitable docking facilities will be encouraged at the leeward side of the island." It continues, "Whether public or private, all piers will have to extend beyond the surf zone and to a natural water depth that will obviate (prevent) dredging works." Under "Reclamation of Land" it recommends that this be done through studies and in partnership with the owners of the land.

    Significant in this section of the plan is part three on dredging. It proposes, "Dredging will be defined in general terms, as the movement of soil. Whenever this is done, whether by a Dredger, an excavating machine or manually, it must be done in a manner so as not to adversely affect the stability of the beach and the coastline. In the context of San Pedro, no such works will be permitted on the eastern side of the island except temporary works (when properly justified) provided such works adhere to the principles of maintaining the equilibrium of the beach profile and its ecology, is designed and supervised by competent professionals, and a guarantee in the form of a bond or otherwise is made by the executing agency to allow the authority to undertake corrective works in the event of default by the executing agency. As a rule of thumb, this amount will be three times the cost/value (whichever is greater) of the works to be done.

    It continues, "In areas of the island not exposed to wave action dredging should take place at a safe distance from the coastline. The distance could be reduced where bulkheads have been constructed and measures are taken to eliminate the possibility of erosion of the coastline. Where mining of materials inland or reclamation by digging of canals is conducted, measures should be taken to eliminate the risk of erosion to adjacent properties."

    Throughout this investigation it became apparent that many local individuals and organizations are aware and outraged regarding the "raping" of Ambergris Caye. Our local marine and coastal protection organization Green Reef began writing letters of protest to the Geology Department immediately after the first hurricane. After alerting several pertinent committees and government departments, i.e. The Belize Barrier Reef Committee, Coastal Zone Advisory Board, BACONGO, BEMAMCCOR, the departments of Environment, Geology and Fisheries of the illegal dredging practices, their most recent letter dated May 30, 2001 was forwarded to the Minister of Natural Resources, Hon. John Briceño. The letter included photographs and listed many examples and locations of illegal dredging activity. Green Reef further stated, "Dredging permits are being issued without consultation with the local Town Board and Tourist Guide Association." In closing the local Non-Governmental Organization recommended, "the Ministry appoint a local organization to monitor dredging activities around Ambergris Caye as they are the ones impacted the most." Green Reef President Mito Paz quoted that in his last BEMAMCCOR (Belize-Mexico Alliance for the Management of the Common Coastal Resources) meeting, "It was decided that BEMAMCCOR's priority issue will be illegal dredging as it pertains to the blasting and dredging of the Zarragoza Canal in Mexico and the uncontrolled dredging around Ambergris Caye. We feel that this issue (dredging) deserves the utmost attention."

    Several others have made similar reports and/or submitted letters of concern including San Pedro Tourist Guide Association, Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve and National Park regarding dredging activities. In an interview with Mayor Alberto Nuñez he also admitted to making reports, but said they appear to "fall on deaf ears." He claimed he would be happy to be part of a "united front" to resolve this situation. Mayor Nuñez mentioned the Department of Environment was scheduled to perform a site visit, but failed to show. Fortunately, Geology recently accepted an invitation to do an inspection of the dredging activity on the island Wednesday, the 4th of July. Due to alleged budget cuts in the Ministry of Natural Resources, it was reported the expenses for the trip will need to be absorbed by Town Council and the Ambergris Caye Planning Committee.

    More information needed on the subject was solicited from a variety of government representatives. In attempting to contact Fisheries Officer James Azueta, Chief Environmental Officer Ismael Fabro and the person responsible for issuing mining permits, Director of Geology Evadne Wade, it was learned all three were out of the country.

    Area Representative Patty Arceo, also a Minister of State in the Ministry of Natural Resources, reported that she has toured the north end of the island and is aware of the dredging situation. She claimed that most of the illegal activities appeared to be "an abuse of permits that were given in good faith," to land owners as well as dredge operators. The Area Representative concluded that based on information received from the Department of Geology's inspection on Wednesday, reports, reprimands and recommendations will be made.

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