Legal Protection for Belize’s Coral Communities

Belize Coral Communities Photo
WCS works with local fishermen to balance conservation with sustainable use of marine resources along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
©Caleb McClennen

Belize has the longest coral reef system in the Western Hemisphere and its coastal waters are a haven for sea turtles, groupers, spiny lobster, queen conch, and other marine creatures. This tremendous diversity of sea life also makes the waters a target for the fisheries industry. WCS is helping the country’s Department of Fisheries to reform its national fisheries policy—bringing it in line with international standards and national priorities. New standards would help ensure the survival of certainly deeply overfished species, protect the fragile reefs, and establish more marine protected areas in sustainable fisheries.


Belize’s valuable fish stocks have been vastly over-harvested by commercial fishers. Though the coastline is dotted with marine protected areas that form part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage Site, fishing has long been permitted in the reserves. Angling techniques like spearfishing, which have a drastic effect on reefs, have devastated once-abundant species such as Nassau grouper—a fish now listed as endangered by IUCN’s Red List. When Belize’s populations of snappers and groupers collapsed, the fishers turned to the next tier of the foodweb, and began to target grazers like parrotfish, doctor, and surgeonfish. When populations of these herbivores fall off, algae proliferate in the surrounding waters—another fatal condition for coral reefs.

In addition to over-fishing, unregulated coastal and caye development—often accompanied by dredging, vegetation clearance, and improper waste disposal—put pressure on critical sea grass, coral, and mangrove habitats. With the growth of the tourism industry along the coast and the expansion of agriculture on the mainland—a source of toxic run-off—Belize’s marine life continues to face great risks.


  • Work with local managers and fishermen to balance conservation with sustainable use of marine resources along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
  • Create “no-take” zones in protected areas.
  • Raise public awareness as to the value of the ocean, and its preservation.
  • Help implement national fisheries management with an ecosystem-based approach, and strengthen the role of marine protected areas in sustainable fisheries.

What WCS is Doing

WCS has taken a leadership role in driving fisheries policy reform in Belize, helping the country find new ways of managing their marine resources sustainably, and for the long-term. Our research helped lay the groundwork for a set of laws that raised the standard for coral reef protection in the Caribbean. Belize’s new regulations protect Nassau grouper and their spawning sites, as well as parrotfish and other grazers. Our work also created new “no-take” zones in protected areas. Fishing is now banned in reserves such as South Water Caye, known for its unique reefs, marine turtles, and manatees, and the Pelican Cayes, a hotspot for rare sponges and sea squirts. With WCS technical aid, the Belize Fisheries Department ensures fisheries officers and patrols carry out the new standards with solid enforcement. WCS also strives foster a sense of public ownership of the new laws through education and outreach efforts.

At the Glover’s Reef Marine Research Station, WCS is training a new generation of Belizeans to act as environmental stewards of their vibrant coastline. In the U.S., WCS works with government leaders in Washington D.C. to help shape critical investment decisions related to natural resource adaptation, both at home and abroad. Currently, we seek to increase support for coral reef conservation efforts through the Coral Reef Conservation Reauthorization Act.

From the Newsroom

Belize Limits Reef FishingApril 27, 2009

With WCS research as a guide, the government of Belize enacts new laws to protect the country’s extensive coral reefs, considered to be the most pristine in the Western Hemisphere.

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