Belize Takes Action to Protect Coral Reefs

Influenced by WRI’s Coastal Capital: Belize — an economic valuation of the nation’s coral reefs – the government of Belize took momentous steps over the past 18 months to protect this unique ecosystem. For example, after the container ship Westerhaven ran aground on a reef in January 2009, the government decided to sue for damages—something that had not occurred with past groundings. The suit was premised on the forgone economic contribution of the damaged reef’s ecosystem services, a first-of-its-kind approach in Belize history. In a landmark decision, the Belizean Supreme Court ruled in April 2010 that the ship’s owners must pay the government ~US$6 million in damages.

In addition to the ruling, the govern-ment tightened a number of fishing regulations, including:

                Restricting the size limit of Nassau groupers and banning the harvest of parrotfish;

                Mandating that all fish fillets brought to landing sites retain a skin patch, facilitating species identification for law enforcement;

                Banning spearfishing within marine protected areas.

These outcomes, especially the ecosystem service-based fine, are landmarks for Belize and the Caribbean region, and perhaps for other reef-rich areas too. They should help relieve threats to the Mesoamerican Reef, which underpins a significant portion of Belize’s GDP. For example coral reef- and mangrove-associated tourism contribute to 12 to 15 percent of Belize’s GDP. Reefs and mangroves also protect coastal properties from erosion and wave-induced damage, providing an estimated US$231 to US$347 million in avoided damages per year – or 20% of Belize’s annual GDP.

WRI played an important role in making these outcomes happen. In November 2008, WRI released Coastal Capital: Belize. NGO partners put our findings in front of national legislators. Belize’s Prime Minister attended the launch gala and later cited videos featuring our economic valuation results as key to his decision to approve the new fishing restrictions. Furthermore, days after the Westerhaven incident, the Belize Fisheries and Environment Departments and NGO partners contacted and worked with WRI to calculate compensatory ecosystem-related damages of the grounding which were used in court. The Supreme Court’s ruling even included verbatim language from Coastal Capital: Belize.

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