Mesoamerican Reef

From Ridge to Reef: Community-Minded Conservation in Southern Belize

In 1997, a small group of committed conservationists in Punta Gorda (population: 6,000) banded together to stop hunting of manatees and illegal fishing in their waters in Belizean water by outside fishermen. Since that time, the Toledo Institute for Development and the Environment (TIDE) has become the largest conservation organization in southern Belize and its second largest non-government employer.

The Maya Mountains blanket Belize from ridge to sea.

TIDE manages a mosaic of protected areas and promotes environmentally sustainable practices in 17 communities to improve natural resource management in the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor — a million-acre landscape that links the crest of the Maya Mountains to the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR), and home to more than 220 tree species and 350 species of birds.

TIDE’s “ridge-to-reef “ approach recognizes the importance of holistic watershed management if coral reefs and marine life are to remain healthy and plentiful. With the Belizean government, TIDE co-manages the 160-square-mile Port Honduras Marine Reserve and the adjacent Payne’s Creek National Park, encompassing more than 37,000 acres of rainforest, pine savannah, rivers, and lagoons. TIDE also owns and manages more than 20,000 acres of private protected lands purchased through a “debt-for-nature” swap agreement between the governments of Belize and the U.S.

Port Honduras Marine Reserve

Coral in Port Honduras Marine Reserve.

TIDE’s park rangers patrol those areas to prevent illegal hunting and fishing, deforestation, and forest fires. In the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, TIDE ensures enforcement of closed seasons, size limits for conch and lobster, and bans on destructive fishing lines and nets.

TIDE and the Belize Fisheries Department, in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund, introduced Managed Access in Port Honduras Marine Reserve as one of two pilot sites, limiting fishing rights to those that meet criteria as “traditional fishers.” The Managed Access system grants fishermen the right to fish in certain areas, and replaces the unsustainable open access system, which has contributed to declining fish stock across Belize.

“If we had not implemented Managed Access, we would have no commercial species,” said Martin Reyes, a local lifelong fisherman in PHMR. “I remember going further and further out at sea and coming back with few fish. Today we are seeing only fishers who have traditionally used this area and we are benefiting much more.” Celia Mahung, TIDE’s executive director, said that lessons learned from implementing Managed Access in the pilot sites informed the national rollout of the program.

Schoolchildren in Belize

Schoolchildren in southern Belize learn the value of conserving their environment.

James Foley, TIDE’s Science Director, works closely with local fishermen to communicate findings from catch log data collected through the Managed Access program. Through a series of interactive, participative workshops, fishermen have been seeing the benefits of logging reliable catch data and applying their collective knowledge to making informed management decisions that benefit them all.

Besides monitoring the status of corals, lobster, conch, and sea cucumber, TIDE also conducts targeted research on the critically endangered Goliath grouper, the invasive lionfish, and habitat mapping of the marine reserve. Research findings are shared with the public and government through education campaigns and advocacy.

Local community empowerment has been core to TIDE’s mission. Twenty-five community researchers have been trained in research diving and data collection, preparing them for careers in conservation and resource management. For recognition of his leadership of TIDE’s community researcher program, James Foley won the John Denham Award for Community Engagement in Conservation from Ecology Project International.

Celia Mahung presents the Freshwater Cup trophy to students.

Celia Mahung presents the Freshwater Cup trophy to students.

Thousands of adolescents participate annually in the Freshwater Cup soccer tournament, which was recognized with the Energy Globe Award. Over 200 high school scholarship recipients, funded by TIDE, contribute to Belize’s sustainable development. The high level of community participation in TIDE’s annual Fish Festival underscores the impact of the organization’s engagement with local communities.

“We’re spreading knowledge and understanding of issues threatening the beautiful Maya Mountain Marine Corridor, ensuring the preservation of this valuable area, and by extension, the Mesoamerican Reef,” said Celia Mahung. “I think we’ve come a long way in making people aware of the importance of protecting the environment.”

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