The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System is the longest reef in the Northern Hemisphere.  It was inscribed on the World Heritage Site List in 1996 as an outstanding example representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems, and communities of plants and animals; containing superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance; and containing the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation. 

The Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO) petitions the World Heritage Committee to uphold its duty under Article 11(4) of the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (World Heritage Convention) to list the Belize Barrier Reef as World Heritage in Danger due to the serious and specific, ascertained and potential dangers from the combined effects of global climate change.

In the words of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission:

“Corals are susceptible to rising temperatures and die when the water becomes too warm, via a process called 'coral bleaching.' Furthermore, coral reefs support an incredibly diverse ecosystem.  Thus coral bleaching has implications that extend beyond the isolated deaths of corals, it jeopardizes the life of the entire ecosystem.”

In the Status of the Coral Reefs of the World: 2002 report, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network concluded that:

“[t]he increasing evidence is that coral reefs are bearing the brunt of Global Climate Change in the marine environment and the prognosis for reefs .  .  .  is grim........The major concern is that we may be in a period of accelerating ocean warming and more frequent coral bleaching events that could cause serious damage to reefs, not in decade scales but in the next few years.”

Support for the report indicates a strong need for remediation strategies and that this position is now “the consensus position of most coral reef scientists and managers around the world.”

Studies in the Mesoamerican Caribbean Reef (MACR), the 1,000 km reef system along the coastlines of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras to which the Belize Barrier Reef belongs, predict that “future bleaching events are perhaps the greatest future threat to the eco-region's coral reefs.” The study determined that the frequency and intensity of disturbances to the region's reefs have recently increased, including several reefs affected by repeated and/or coinciding events.

In 1998, severe bleaching of corals occurred worldwide, with a 16% loss in the world's reef-building corals, after the highest sea surface temperatures on record.  In Belize, the bleaching caused mass mortality of scleractinian (hard) corals on lagoon reefs, which was “the first time that a coral population in the Caribbean has collapsed completely from bleaching.” Temperatures at the reef were historically rarely higher than 29ºC but exceeded 30ºC during the summer of 1998.  A study of sediment cores extracted from below the reef showed that in the past 3,000 years, no other events of this nature have occurred on the reef.

From late August through October 1998, temperatures remained high enough for a sufficient period to lead to coral mortality.  The 50% reduction in live coral cover that occurred in Belize between 1997 and 1999 is still evident.  Over the past few years, the affected corals have been colonized by algae rather than growth of new corals.  In parts of southern Belize, coral losses were as high as 75%.  The most abundant coral on this section of the reef before the event, the lettuce coral Agaricia tenuifolia, experienced almost complete mortality at all depths.

In 2001, after a collaboration of regional scientists conducted coral reef surveys of the entire MACR from Mexico to Honduras, concern was raised about low coral cover at many sites, particularly in the sub-regions of Belize.  Coral cover of 25-30% would be considered “good” for the Caribbean; the 2001 survey observed only 12.9% average coral cover across the study sites in Belize.

Within the Belize Barrier Reef World Heritage Site, South Water Caye Marine Reserve and Laughing Bird Caye National Park are the sites most susceptible to future bleaching events.  Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve is susceptible to coral bleaching and experienced greater than 50% mortality during the 1998 bleaching event.  Glovers Reef Marine Reserve has experienced damage from bleaching and is susceptible to future bleaching events.  Half Moon Caye Natural Monument and Blue Hole Natural Monument are susceptible to coral beaching and hurricanes but have so far only experienced moderate reef damage due to bleaching, and Bacalar Chico National Park is also susceptible to future bleaching events.

The Site faces additional threats, including over-fishing, pollution, especially through agrochemical run-off from banana and citrus plantations and sewage from tourist and residential centers, solid waste disposal and industrial effluents, opportunistic diseases such as white band and black band coral disease, increased coastal development and tourism, including cruise ships.  These weaken and will continue to further weaken the resiliency of the reef system, and compound the danger of global climate change by making the reef more vulnerable to its effects.

Corrective measures

Effects: Better protection of existing marine protected areas from threats to coral reefs, including overfishing, pollution, disease, coastal development, and tourism impacts, should be implemented so that corals will be more resilient to climate change and have a better chance to recover from post-bleaching events.  In particular:

(1) Marine Protected Areas (MPAs): The Coastal Zone Management program initiated in Belize in 1993, which has supported the planning and expansion of the national network of marine protected areas (MPAs), needs support and funding to achieve the desired effect of mitigating the threats to the World Heritage Site in particular and to the Belize reef system in general.  This should be supplemented by adequate, long-term funding for enforcement and monitoring of Belize's legal and institutional policy framework for managing the reefs.  New MPAs and modified existing MPA boundaries to coincide protective management with the areas that are least likely to be affected by future ENSO events and climate change would be beneficial.

(2) Coral Bleaching Response Program: Establishment of a “Coral Bleaching Response Program,” like that established at the Great Barrier Reef, would provide early warning of major bleaching events, monitor the spatial extent of a bleaching event, assess the ecological impacts, raise awareness about coral bleaching and climate impacts, and further evaluate management policies and strategies for dealing with mass bleaching events.

(3) Supporting existing initiatives: The Committee should also support and expand many of the existing marine protection efforts in Belize, including regional joint protective efforts.  One successful conservation project run by the Tri-national Alliance of Non-governmental Organizations of the Gulf of Honduras which promotes “the sustainable management of fisheries, the protection of threatened species, the development of ecotourism projects, and the design of contingency plans for the prevention of disasters which could damage the natural resources in the Gulf of Honduras and in the Central American region in general.”

(4) Research and education: There is an urgent need for research that addresses the vulnerability and resiliency of coral reefs in response to coral bleaching, hurricane, and climate change impacts.  Data is also needed on the impacts of recent increased tourism in Belize on coral reef health, particularly the impact of the rapid rate of cruise ship arrivals.  In addition, local communities, tourists, and the public need to be educated about the need for the conservation of coral reefs, especially in light of increasing adverse climate change impacts on coral reef ecosystems.

Causes:

Although unhealthy reefs are impacted more severely, global climate change affects both unhealthy and pristine reefs, thus even reefs with adequate and enforced legal protections will still be affected.  Any management plan designed to sustain coral reefs must therefore include a plan designed to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases to lessen the future impacts of climate change.  Studies suggest that “40% of the world's coral reefs will be lost by 2010, and another 20% in the 20 years following unless urgent management action is implemented.” One study stresses that “[t]he recent history of coral reefs suggests that collapse is not impossible and indeed, that we may be closer to worldwide collapse than we realize.” The Committee should therefore consider for inclusion amongst the corrective measures the reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases by States who are Parties to the Convention and who emit, and have emitted, the highest levels of these gases.