for National Geographic News
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Belize is a tiny Central American nation that's been blessed with an enormous natural treasurethe Western Hemisphere's biggest coral barrier reef. The reef system is a riotous assemblage of colorful marine life that attracts naturalists, snorkelers, and divers from around the world.
The reef system and nearby ocean waters are also essential providers for the inhabitants of coastal Belize, many of whom depend upon their rich bounty for economic survival.
But the sea's vast resources are not limitless, and the waters of Belize are showing the strain of years of unchecked fishing as well as damage from increased tourism, pollution, and disease.
Conservation organizations have enlisted the help of the Belizean government, which maintains 12 marine protected areas throughout the reef. A cluster of seven of these areas have even been accorded UNESCO World Heritage statusa designation reserved for the world's most outstanding examples of cultural and natural heritage.
Positive strides were made last November when a series of regulations were passed to preserve the spawning areas of the endangered Nassau grouper. But protection comes at a price to the people who have made their living fishing these waters, and the new laws cannot be effective without their support and cooperation.
Popularity Hurts Nassau Grouper
A telling example of the overfishing problems plaguing the reef system is the story of the Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus). This fish is vital to the reef ecosystem as a predator of smaller fish, lobster, crab, octopus, and shrimp. In turn, groupers are prey for larger animals including barracuda, shark, and dolphins.
Their most voracious predators, however, have been humans.
The active local fishery for Nassau grouper began about 70 years ago, focusing on a 10- to 14-day spawning period each year during the full moon of late December or early January. This is when the fish leave their reef lairs and congregate by the thousands on traditional spawning banks to the seaward side of the reef.
At the same time, locals left their villages and towns in small dug-out boats equipped with handlines, spearguns, or traps and headed to these banks to fish for the groupers. For years, the picking was easy, and it seemed the bounty would never end.
But recently, it's been a radically different story. Many spawning beds are emptyand so are fishermen's nets.
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