Written By: Andrea Polanco
According to a World Wildlife Fund’s ‘Natural Heritage, Natural Wealth’ 2017 report, 28,000 jobs are supported by Belize’s reef-related tourism sector and the fisheries sector has 2,400 registered fishers and several thousand more are involved in processing and exporting roles. In total, this report says that just below fifty thousand people in Belize directly depend on the health of reef and mangrove ecosystems for their livelihoods and a whopping 190,000 people in total if you include the support for their families.
The health of the tourism and fishing industries are directly tied to the management of the marine sites.
One way that Belize manages its marine resources is the use of marine protected areas (MPAs) as a tool to reduce the loss of biodiversity, support healthy ecosystem balance, as well as to protect endangered and support economically important species.
Despite conservation efforts, these resources are under pressure due to human induced activities such as development projects, resource exploitation, as well as climate change and other stressors. But these MPAs have shown how healthy oceans drive tourism, promote food security, and sustain thousands of livelihoods.
Belize has a network of marine protected areas which includes the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve (TAMR). Dubbed Belize’s “largest and most significant” marine reserve, the protection for this site was discussed for more than two decades but it wasn’t until 2012 that it was declared a marine reserve. This protected area is managed by the Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association (TASA) which is led by Executive Director, Valdemar Andrade.
To talk about the role of MPAs in a natural resource-based economy, Andrade shares how these natural capital benefits us, from the food we eat to the livelihoods they support, to coastal protection and recreational enjoyment – summarizing the impact on the national economic safety net for Belize by way of its GDP.
AP: If we are to look at the big picture value of MPAs to Belize – tourism as Belize’s biggest revenue earner comes to mind immediately – how significant are MPAs to our economy?
VA: Tourism which is over seven hundred million dollars is based primarily on the natural resources, whether it is the Blue Hole; the Great Barrier Reef; fly-fishing – these are based in protected areas or the natural environment. And when you add fisheries to that – naturally environment basically bolsters, I would say, upwards of ninety percent of the economy. If we look at the estimated sixty percent of tourists going to the marine areas, we can say that we contribute sixty percent of the tourism revenues and we all know that a majority of those come from San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Placencia – which are all marine related – so you are looking at an estimated four hundred and fifty to five hundred million dollars annually.
AP: Zoning in Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve – how does this contribute to that figure?
VA: In tourism, for Turneffe Atoll we are looking at a hundred and fifty-one point six million Belize dollars annually, and that is just one site, to show the comparative amount. In addition, with fly-fishing alone, the impact of bonefish, tarpon, permit in Belize, we are contributing a hundred and twelve million Belize dollars, nationally.
AP: Fisheries, for a long time, was seen as the first and major benefit from our marine resources – before tourism came long – just how much are our marine protected areas contributing to this sector?
VA: Nationally, in fisheries - just in lobster - it is twenty-seven point two million dollars, and overall, I think we are talking about forty million dollars overall between lobster, conch and finfish. Turneffe is important because we have documentation that says Turneffe provides twenty-five percent of the production of lobster and conch for national – only what is delivered to them – we have products delivered to Fine Catch, Northern [Fishermen’s Cooperative], and direct to the market. For Turneffe, we have seven hundred and fifty-six fishers who work in Turneffe – they depend on that. They come from Belize City; Chunox; San Pedro – we see about two hundred and two hundred and fifty customary users – fishers – in the area who do lobster, conch and fin fish and they are trying to do some diversification to seaweed.
AP: And of course, there are other significant non-use values that these MPAs provide – for example, for TAMR, in coastal protection?
VA: We have estimated the Turneffe Atoll to have three hundred and eighty-two point three-million-dollar Belize annually storm mitigation value for central Belize and Belize City. It also establishes an annual value based on damages avoided - coral reef, mangroves and sea grass of three point five billion dollars on a whole for the country of Belize.
AP: What about those emerging opportunities – whose value are yet to be fully assessed?
VA: Now we are moving into blue carbon and coming from the mangrove plans that we have, we know that for Belize our annual mangrove loss is less than one percent. For Turneffe alone, we have estimated the blue carbon value at about seven million Belize dollars and so nationally we should be in all the marine spaces and in all the green spaces we should have a high value for carbon. In terms of economic value, we have to look at new areas like seaweed; sea cucumber and how do we diversify fisheries to be able to provide more jobs and opportunities for the sixty thousand Belizeans who are out of a job.
AP: Based on your work in marine protected areas – looking at the value they bring, how does this translate to the investments being made to scale up protection and by extension returns?
VA: So, the value proposition of what marine protected areas contribute to the economy is easily ascertained. So, we have to make a case for more investment in what we do because we can show the contribution to what we do to the economy of this country. There is an opportunity for us to even better position what we do to drive more economic uptake, especially under COVID. The natural areas will become key for tourism because you have to be able to spread tourists out and that is the kind of place they will be looking to be at. I don’t think we are the sole solution, but it is great opportunity. I am saying we have more opportunity if we plan and invest properly or in areas, we can see a better return.
Undoubtedly, limiting human activities in some sections of our waters yields tremendous economic benefits and creates numerous opportunities for Belizeans that cannot be overstated. The economic picture justifies why we need to safeguard the resources through improved management decisions. So, there is an urgent need to balance the investments to these marine protected areas because when you look at the benefits, they provide those outweigh management costs.
Stay up-to-date with the Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association here.
Photo Credit: TASA