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Marine Protected Areas

Halfmoon Caye, Lighthouse ReefAs beautiful and pristine as the terrestrial parks are in Belize, it's in the marine realm that Belize is truly unique in the world. With over 1,000 cayes and 180 miles of barrier reef (longest in the northern hemisphere), Belize is extremely rich in coastal habitats and marine creatures.

The Belize continental shelf is approximately 257km long and 15-40km wide. This underwater platform is a realm of caves, coral pinnacles and grass meadows. The platform ends abruptly on the east by an escarpment which falls more than 3000m into the Caribbean Sea. An extensive fringing and barrier reef system has developed upon the rim of the escarpment. The platform flat is peppered with sand Cayes and coral reefs among vast seagrass beds and sand flats. Between the platform flat and the mainland lies a gently sloping underwater valley, wide and shallow north of Belize City but falling to depths of 64m east of Punta Gorda. Our coastal habitats are essential breeding, rearing and feeding grounds for all aquatic and marine organisms.

These habitats also perform important storm protection functions and provide a link between the runoff of terrestrial ecosystems and the marine food chain. Increasing pressure to develop economic and recreational entities within the coastal zone, as well as more efficient harvesting of marine products has intensified the need for reliable information on the extent and status of marine resources. Only with this information will proper management of these marine resources be possible.

Reef Crest, Belize Barrier ReefThe great diversity of marine habitats can be divided into three major groups - coal reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves. Each of these three habitat groups work together to create a healthy marine environment. The Belize marine protection system, while lagging far behind the terrestrial park system, is quickly gaining strength. Each of the main habitats is now afforded some protection throughout the coastal zone of Belize.

The most stunning feature of the entire coastal zone is its diversity of reefs. The conditions for coral growth are ideal in Belize - clear water, sunlight, warm water temperatures, perfect salinity, and constant circulation of well oxygenated water. The variety of reef types that these conditions create is unparalleled in the Caribbean.

The Belize Barrier Reef is a nearly continuous strip of coral running all along the continental shelf, forming a wall from the Sapodilla Cayes in the south all the way to the Mexican border on the north. Within this coral barrier lie many different types of reefs including patch reefs, fringing reefs, faroes and ribbon reefs. Approximately 40 corals are found in the Caribbean; and most if not all are represented in Belize.

The largest habitat type in Belize are the seagrass beds. Seagrasses are a small closely related group of plants. Seagrasses are true flowering plants that have adapted to living submerged in marine environments. They are the most successful shallow water marine community in Belize for the following reasons: they grow best in a salt environment; they do not need exposure to the atmosphere to grow; they have a well developed anchoring system to the bottom of the sea; they can reproduce while underwater; they compete well against other marine organisms for space and resources.

Mangrove HabitatThere are six species of seagrass found in Belize. The most dominant is turtle grass. This plant is extremely important to the marine environment. Besides helping to consolidate bottom sediments, thereby preventing erosion or shifting of marine sediments, turtle grass also provides a home for numerous other marine organisms. For example, scientists have found over 40 different species of algae growing on the turtle grass blades alone.

Mangroves are highly productive and ecologically important ecosystems. Mangroves are trees which are adapted to grow in the intertidal zone. The major environmental factors influencing mangrove growth are climate, salinity, tidal fluctuation, sedimentation and wave energy. Variations in the physical, biological and chemical characteristics of coastal environments interact to form a variety of mangrove communities.

Belize is caretaker of a real global treasure - the magnificent Belize Barrier Reef ecosystem. Belize is one of the few places left on earth where resources are predominently undeveloped and undisturbed. The people and government want to be sure to do the right thing and not follow the lead of many other developing nations. They would like to forego the hyperdevelopment that has destroyed so much.

The marine protected areas in this guide are only a sampling of what Belize has to offer. Eighteen marine locations have been nominated for protection status, and the entire coastal zone is being nominated for Biosphere Reserve status.

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