The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) congratulates the Government of Belize for legislating the expansion of its southernmost marine protected area.

The newly expanded Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve now totals an area covering 321,623.5 acres (more than 500 square miles, or 1,301.6 square kilometers). In addition to the existing zones, the expansion includes a strictly protected area (conservation zone IV) in Belize’s deep sea, totaling 228, 958 acres (more than 350 square miles, or 926.6 square kilometers).

This decision means that Belize has now expanded its area of marine protection into the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Given its close proximity to neighboring countries and the threat of transboundary fishing, this declaration allows for the protection of an extensive coral reef complex known as the Corona Reef, located at the southwestern terminus of the Cayman Trench. Preliminary studies conducted suggest that the site includes a vast area of healthy and resilient coral reefs and serves as an important multi-species spawning aggregation site for commercially important reef species including several members of the grouper, snapper and jack families.  

In signing the declaration yesterday, Minister of Fisheries, Forestry, the Environment, and Sustainable Development, Doctor Omar Figueroa said, “I am honored to sign the statutory instrument that enshrines protected status upon this ecologically important marine system. Our country continues to be a global leader in our efforts to protect our natural systems, both terrestrial and marine.”

In welcoming this major announcement, Fisheries Administrator, Beverly Wade said “Belize has one of the most extensive network of marine protected areas which is central to safeguarding the biodiversity and ecosystems of the Belize Barrier Reef complex and by extension the Mesoamerican Reef system. This expansion to the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve further adds to Belize’s commitment for the conservation of its reef system, a national and global heritage, to ensure its long term viability and contribution to livelihoods and national economy.”

WCS’s Country Director, Nicole Auil Gomez said: “We have been working with Fisheries and a group of stakeholders in the Replenishment Zones Expansion Steering Committee, and today we are excited to see the Government of Belize legislate the expansion of the Sapodilla Cayes site. This is one of the eight marine reserves that Cabinet approved for expansion, and its uniqueness is its coral system and its geography as the only one within our EEZ. WCS greatly anticipates the signing of the remaining sites, providing for future biodiversity and fishery stocks spillover benefits.”

The expansion of Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve stems from a proposal approved by the Government of Belize in April 2019 for the national expansion of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the country’s territorial waters. The national commitment to the full expansion of MPAs across Belize reflects the government’s recognition of the importance of the long-term sustainability of Belize’s marine resources and fishing and tourism industries, particularly as the country is faced with the impacts of climate change.

WCS also urges the government to work towards the completion of the national expansion of replenishment zones in Belize’s offshore area.  Potential replenishment zones were identified through an extensive scientific process led by technical experts of the Fisheries Department, local, and international scientific partners, including the Wildlife Conservation Society and The Nature Conservancy, and were validated and supported by stakeholders via extensive consultations. A full implementation of replenishment zones would enable Belize to satisfy its international commitments under the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Guidelines for Small-Scale Fisheries, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

WCS’s efforts expanding MPAs in Belize were generously supported by the Oak Foundation, Oceans 5, an international funders collaborative that includes Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Summit Foundation, The Tiffany & Co. Foundation, and the WCS MPA Fund, made possible through critical support from the Waitt Foundation and other donors.