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Threatened Turneffe Coral atolls

Threatened Turneffe Coral atolls
Coral atolls are rare in the Northern Hemisphere, making it critically important to protect Belize's Turneffe Atoll. Photo Jim Klug

Preventing "Wild West" development on Belize's coral atoll

Coral atolls are rare in the Northern Hemisphere, making it critically important to protect Belize's Turneffe Atoll. Photo Jim Klug

The flats of Turneffe Atoll are part of the healthiest bonefish/permit/tarpon ecosystem I have ever fished. But this unique, unspoiled (and unprotected) Belizean gem is facing the first signs of modern intrusion that could lead to its destruction. What happens within the next decade will determine its future. Creation of Belize's first biosphere reserve is critical to that future, and a vibrant Turneffe Atoll Trust will be the means of creating it.

A short recent history of the atoll puts the Turneffe threat in perspective: For at least the last two decades, Turneffe Atoll commercial fishing catches, primarily for lobster and conch, have declined dramatically, resulting in the "We fish harder but catch much less" story that describes overfishing worldwide. Statistics are unavailable on the declines because Belize has not had the resources to conduct baseline studies on the 30- by 10-mile atoll 20 miles east of Belize City.

Coral Atoll

Turneffe Atoll is the largest most biologically diverse coral atoll in this hemisphere. Its diversity is comprised of (healthy) surrounding coral reefs, extensive turtle grass flats, the largest mangrove forests of any coral atoll in the Caribbean, and coastal hardwood forest. Each habitat element of the enclosed ecosystem is critical to the whole: Cripple one and the entire ecosystem is affected, and possibly destroyed. But most critical of all is the mangrove habitat, the foundation for young-of-the-year fish survival.

The atoll is home to the endangered Antillean manatee, Nassau grouper, hawksbill turtle, and threatened goliath grouper, as well as healthy populations of bonefish, permit, and tarpon that have made it famous among fly fishers of the world. Its declining spiny lobster populations are heavily fished and the tails exported to American restaurants. Its heavily harvested (and diminished) queen conch are both exported and consumed within the country. Its reef fish species, also in long-term decline, are partially protected in two small spawning habitats, but there is scattered enforcement since Belize has limited resources to enforce fishing regulations on all of its coast, including its 12 marine protective areas. There is inadequate scientific baseline information on the atoll's fisheries, including the critical habitats for each life stage of bonefish, tarpon, and permit.

Socially and politically, Turneffe Atoll has been a Belizean environmental stepchild. It had no permanent settlement, so historically it had no official political representation. When in the 1990s Belize created 12 marine protective areas, Turneffe Atoll, the country's most ecologically pristine (remaining) ecosystem, was not included. In the past two decades, with the help of The Nature Conservancy and other environmental groups, the Belize Fisheries Department enacted modern fisheries management regulations on the country's marine environment. Unfortunately, enforcement of the regulations is spotty at best.

The Turneffe Atoll has historically been the seasonal habitation of commercial fishermen and four fishing/diving lodges. But during the past two decades, uncontrolled development erupted, with an estimated 140 land leases issued by the government, and increasing direct and indirect land sales, in some cases on environmentally critical cayes or lagoons. Dredging operations to fill low-lying land began to impact sensitive habitats for crocodile, bonefish, coral, and mangrove. (There are continuing rumors of a large development for cruise ships on the south end of the atoll, where land has been cleared, lodge buildings erected, and deep dockage dredged.) By 2008 an estimated 50 percent of the atoll's land had been leased or sold.

Belize has many environmental development regulations, but none specific to Turneffe Atoll. In the '90s Belize initiated its first national Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute, and formed nine Coastal Zone Advisory Committees, including (in 2000) the Turneffe Islands Coastal Advisory Committee (TICAC), chaired by Craig Hayes, owner of Turneffe Flats Lodge.

Under Hayes's leadership (and significant financing), TICAC stakeholders of the atoll in 2003 created the Turneffe Islands Development Guidelines that, it hoped, would prevent the atoll from becoming the development "Wild West of Belize" — another Ambergris Caye or Placenia.

The recommended regulations included calls for protection of the atoll's sport-fishing resources, traditional fishing rights, the terrestrial and marine environment, and promotion of low-density, environmental tourism (for both high- and low-capital investment), prevention of over-development, and promotion of an equitable land distribution/tenure system which prevents land speculation.


Fly fishers flock to Turneffe Atoll for its tarpon and especially its fine permit and bonefish opportunities. Photo Jim Klug

The guidelines also recommended that environmentally critical cayes such as Soldier, Grassy, Blackbird, Deadman's, Calabash, and others be reserved due to their high conservation value, and that development pollution be controlled by modern environmental technology, mangroves protected under the 1989 Mangrove Protection Act, and that solar and wind power be used in addition to traditional generators.

They also called for a moratorium on the sale of small national cayes, for securing the tenure on traditional fishing camps that have had long-term and active occupation, that new leases for fishermen be prioritized to traditional fishermen, and that over-the-water (on stilts) closed structures be banned on Turneffe. Unfortunately, the forward-looking and thorough guidelines were never adopted by the government.

In 2010 the Belizean government, under encouragement from the Turneffe Atoll Trust, declared catch-and-release regulations on bonefish, tarpon, and permit for the entire country, with $25 weekly and $50 annual license fees. The atoll hosts about 1,000 divers and 500 sport fishers per year.

The increasingly obvious threats to Turneffe Atoll brought the traditional stakeholders — commercial fishermen, sport-fishing, dive and ecotourism lodge owners — together, first under TICAC and the Atoll Trust, and increasingly under an expanding

environmental sensitivity in the Belizean government, especially with the urging of the nongovernmental agencies such as Oceana, World Wildlife Conservation Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, UNESCO (which can declare Turneffe a World Biosphere Reserve or World Heritage Site), the World Wildlife Fund, and the Nature Conservancy. CITES has asked that Belize, and other countries scientifically assess and manage their conch populations.

In the '90s, the U.S. Congress provided the original impetus for creation of Belizean marine and forest reserves through a debt-for-nature forgiveness program. The debt-for-nature swaps were used primarily in southern Belize, but there has been no action related to Turneffe Atoll under the program. (Fifty-one percent of Belize is marine habitat.)

The TICAC concerns led indirectly in 2003 to Turneffe Atoll Trust's (30-minute) DVD production An Atoll At Risk, a broad science-based description of the atoll's unique atoll ecosystem, and its potential for destruction or use-based preservation and restoration based on scientific evaluations of its unspoiled habitats — plant, coral, and fish/shellfish life — and carefully planned and managed development based on traditional commercial and sport fishing, diving, and ecotourism.

The consensus among environmental scientists involved with helping developing countries worldwide evaluate and protect their remaining environmental assets, Belizean government officials, and the atoll stakeholders is that Turneffe Atoll is at a tipping point: Without immediate additional scientific evaluation of its fisheries and other environmental assets, and modern development regulations — based on and tailored to the atoll's unique and unspoiled ecosystem assets and traditional uses — it will quickly become another highly developed Ambergris Caye. They also believe strongly that the atoll can be managed successfully for the future if the stakeholders, with the help of the government, can do the following:

± 1. Create Turneffe Atoll as a Marine Reserve in keeping with the other 12 Belizean reserves.

± 2. Develop an atoll management plan, with protected commercial fishing, no-take, and managed-harvest zones (with an enforcement plan and enforcement).

± 3. Push for creation of the atoll as a World Biosphere Reserve, the first one in Belize.

± 4. Create a GIS (global imaging survey) map of atoll land lease/ownership and critical marine habitats on the atoll (to be done by Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment) with development regulations based on the GIS.

± 5. Secure funding for the scientific evaluations of the atoll's critical environmental assets, GIS mapping, formulation of updated fishing and development regulations, and creation of an atoll fisheries enforcement program.

Funding the Trust

According to Turneffe Island Trust ( and TICAC chairman Craig Hayes, it is possible, under Belize fisheries law, to quickly create a marine management area for the atoll with enforcement by the Fisheries Department and the Coast Guard, assisted by the atoll flats guides.

It will take a greatly expanded Turneffe Atoll Trust budget to accomplish the critical immediate needs: Most of the funding (and leadership) for Turneffe Atoll Trust has come from Hayes and his Turneffe Flats Lodge. But with the recent hiring of Paul Robertson as trust executive director, and the movement of headquarters to Bozeman, Montana, the trust's operating budget will be expanded to reach between $100,000 and $250,000, depending on how many corporate memberships can be sold. The plan is for 15 to 100 corporate memberships at $500 each in 2011, and 1,500 to 2,000 individual members at $35 each.

Directors of the Turneffe Atoll Trust include Hayes, Jim Klug of Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures; Andy Wunsch of Simms Fishing Products; Rich Paini of TroutHunter; and Craig Mathews of Blue Ribbon Flies.

Contact Information

Turneffe Atoll Trust

P.O. Box 10670

Bozeman, MT 59719

(888) 512-8812

Visit for a complete history and information on current programs.

One only has to wade the coral flats, fish the quiet turtle grass lagoons, or just sit on the porches of the remarkable Turneffe Flats Lodge (, watching bonefish tail in the morning sun, or see 100+ permit schooling quietly on glassy waters to experience the magic of a healthy and vibrant atoll.

Without help from us, it could be lost. Please join me in becoming a corporate sponsor or member.

John Randolph is publisher emeritus of Fly Fisherman and has fished in Belize extensively, including at Turneffe Atoll.

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