Belize Marine Protected Area Safeguards World's Largest Fish

WASHINGTON, DC, July 17, 2003 (ENS) - A new marine protected area has been created in southern Belize that will help to protect the world's only predictable gathering site of the whale shark, the planet's largest fish, Conservation International announced today.

The 3,360 acre (1,360 hectare) marine protected area includes the water surrounding Little Water Caye, a tiny island 18 miles off Belize's southeastern coast.

Acquisition of the island helps consolidate a larger marine conservation corridor in the region. Gladden Spit and the Silk Caye marine reserve lie to the east of Little Water Caye, and the nearby Laughing Bird Caye national park and World Heritage site lies to its west.

coral

The coral reefs off southern Belize are among the most biologically diverse in the world. (Photo courtesy Friends of Nature)
The newly acquired Little Water Caye will house a marine research station and ranger headquarters, and will serve as the management base for surrounding marine protected areas.

The majority share of Little Water Caye was purchased for Friends of Nature, a Belizean nongovernmental organization made up of five local communities. They will own and manage the majority of the island. The minority share of the island will remain in the hands of a private owner who has agreed to prevent the development of Little Water Caye.

The purchase of the island for Friends of Nature was made possible through grants provided by Conservation International's Global Conservation Fund, which provided $222,000, and the Oak Foundation, which provided an additional $75,000.

"In terms of biodiversity, this area is one of the greatest crown jewels in the Mesoamerica barrier reef, the second largest coral reef on the planet," said Dr. Sylvia Earle, executive director of Conservation International's Global Marine Program. "As we hear stories about the precipitous declines of fish populations all around the world, it becomes even more critical to protect these unique places."

Whale sharks that gather each spring in the region near Little Water Caye can live to 100 years, grow to 50 feet and weigh as much as 27,000 pounds. Although found in tropical seas throughout the world, its spawning congregations are notoriously unpredictable, except for their regular appearance in this area.

"The local communities that founded Friends of Nature were the first to discover the rare whale sharks that congregate in the area and became determined to do something to protect them," said Costas Christ, senior director of Conservation International's Ecotourism Program.

"By promoting marine education in local schools and supporting eco-friendly tourism, they have set an example for how conservation, local communities and responsible travel can work in harmony to save the marine environment," Christ said.

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Whale shark swims along the Mesoamerican reef system in Belize. (Photo by Wolcott Henry courtesy Conservation International)
The region surrounding Little Water Caye is considered one of the highest priority areas for conservation in the Caribbean by several environmental organizations due to its high biodiversity.

The area is inhabited by more than 25 reef fish species that come to spawn, including the endangered Nassau grouper, the Mutton snapper and the Cubera snapper. But the whale shark is the focus of the Little Water Caye conservation effort.

"Now that we own and will manage the majority of Little Water Caye, we can ensure that these magnificent creatures will have a safe place to call home for generations to come," said Lindsay Garbutt, executive director of Friends of Nature.

"We are quite pleased that we can both generate revenue for our communities through ecotourism and preserve our natural environment, all while hopefully encouraging other communities to do similar conservation work," said Garbutt.

The Global Conservation Fund, which provided the majority of financing as well as technical expertise to this project, invests exclusively in projects located in areas that are rich in biodiversity. It is the first fund of its kind in the world, with a pool of ready cash available for creating and expanding protected areas with high concentrations of unique biodiversity. The GCF became possible as a result of a $100 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

"This project is a good example of how the GCF does its work," said Marianne Guerin-McManus, executive director of the GCF. "Through this strategic land deal, we have helped a community based organization secure a tiny island with huge importance for marine biodiversity."