Wildlife Conservation Society research helped inform new rule changes

Parrotfish, Nassau grouper, and other species under new protection; spearfishing is banned in marine reserves

NEW YORK (APRIL 27, 2009) -- The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and its partners commend the Government of Belize, in particular the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Honorable Rene Montero, who earlier this month signed a sweeping set of new laws to protect its extensive coral reefs, considered to be the most pristine in the Western Hemisphere. The new laws will safeguard a variety of fish species, ban spearfishing in marine reserves, and create “no-take” zones in other marine protected areas.

“We applaud the Government of Belize for these progressive new laws that will ensure a future for coral reefs in the region,” said Dr. Steven E. Sanderson, President and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Belize has set a new standard for coral reef and fisheries protection in the Caribbean.”

The first of the new laws will protect parrotfish and other grazers, such as doctor and surgeon fish, which WCS studies have shown keep algae growth in check thus encouraging more growth of corals. In years past, fishermen were not targeting grazing fish and catching mainly snappers and groupers instead. But as these species have declined, fishermen have turned to the next tier of the food web, namely herbivores and in particular, parrotfish.

WCS catch data from Glover’s Reef show that parrotfish are now the most commonly caught fish at Glover's. As these grazers are fished out, coral cover declines. With the protection of parrotfish and other grazers, marine researchers expect that coral growth and the percentage of live coral cover will start to increase.

The second set of regulations will help protect Nassau grouper, which is listed as an endangered species by IUCN’s Red List and has shown dramatic declines in Belize. The new rules set a minimum and maximum size limit, and also require that all Nassau groupers be brought back to the dock whole. This was necessary since fishermen generally bring in their catch as fillets, making it difficult to monitor catch rates. All other fish can still be brought in as fillets but must retain a patch of skin so they can be identified as a different species than Nassau grouper.

The third regulation is the banning of spearfishing within marine reserves. Spearfishing is the main method used to take grazing fish, Nassau grouper, and other groupers and has caused severe declines of these species.

Other aspects of the new laws include changing the zoning regulations for South Water Caye and Sapodilla Cayes marine reserves to include “no take” areas, or areas closed to fishing. This includes the Pelican Cayes area, which is known as a biodiversity hotspot for rare sponges and tunicates—a type of marine animal also known as “sea squirts.” Although these marine reserves were declared in 1996 and form part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage Site, they have never been off limits to fishing until the passage of this new law.

WCS began its involvement in Belize during the early 1980’s when it initiated the planning of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and later the creation of Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve. In 1997, WCS opened a state-of-the-art research station on Middle Key in the heart of Glover’s Reef that continues to host marine researchers from around the world.

WCS’s marine conservation work in Belize was made possible in part by the generous support of The Summit Foundation, Oak Foundation, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The Wildlife Conservation Society is working with our leaders in Washington to inform critical investment decisions related to natural resource adaptation, both at home and abroad. Currently, WCS is working with U.S. congressional leaders to enact the Coral Reef Conservation Reauthorization Act to increase support for coral reef conservation efforts.

The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide. We do so through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes towards nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth. Visit: www.wcs.org

Special Note to the Media: If you would like to guide your readers or viewers to a web link where they can make donations in support of helping save wildlife and wild places, please direct them to: www.wcs.org/donation

Stephen Sautner: (1-718-220-3682; ssautner@wcs.org)
John Delaney: (1-718-220-3275;jdelaney@wcs.org)