The Mesoamerican reef system represents the largest reef complex situated in the northern hemisphere spanning an approximate length of one thousand kilometers. Of this complex, about three hundred kilometres straddles the coast of Belize, making it the second largest coral reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
In Belize, the barrier reef is renowned for several iconic natural heritage sites, and recognized for its superlative natural beauty, attractive ecology and its unique biological diversity. In addition, this reef complex serves as an important economic earner sustaining tourism, fisheries and the livelihood of many local Belizeans who directly depend on the resource.
Oil exploration dates back to the early 1960s in Belize. Since then various concessions have been issued across the changing political platforms, which have now extended to include the marine environment (Kirkwood & Matura-Shepherd 2011). Though such considerations present a lucrative incentive, various insurmountable implications may arise if proper caution is not exercised. These include:
- Incalculable damage assessment with threats of ecocide
There is limited scientific knowledge explaining the full effect of oil spills in a marine environment. To compound this issue, there is no proper technique available to price biodiversity; thus, for a complex environment like Belize’s reef, the losses could be colossal resulting in the disruption of ecosystem services, reconfiguration (if not total destruction) of a fragile complex, which is of high value to the country.
- Loss of a social landmark
The barrier reef is a source of national pride and identity. In conjunction with its diverse fauna and flora that shape the marine ecosystem, it also holds a few of the world’s renowned natural heritage sites (i.e. the Great Blue Hole – a diver’s paradise as it was acclaimed). As a result, oil exploration in this environment threatens the existence of an important social land mark.
- Degradation of a revenue earner
Apart from the social component, the reef generates a significant amount of revenues in the tourism and fishing sector. Estimates, according to Kirkwood & Matura-Shepherd (2011), illustrate that for projections between 2009 and 2011 about 282 million USD was brought into the country under the tourism sector by tourist entering the country visiting the cayes, scuba diving the reef and participating in other marine activities. As well, data projection from fisheries within that same time frame indicated that approximately 24 million USD was generated from the exported wild-caught sea food which comprised principally of conchs, lobster and marine fish (Kirkwood & Matura-Shepherd 2011; Gibson et al 1998).
Conserve the reserve
Finding a balance between development and conservation is a challenge, particularly in a growing nation like Belize. However, in this context ignorance is definitely not bliss. Whatever venture is undertaken within our marine environment must be of vital concern to the Belizean nation, particularly because of the tremendous implications tied to such schemes. Under this circumstance, OFF-SHORE DRILLING in Belize’s barrier reef reserve system must be critically reviewed, debated, defended and always be an issue of national concern.
Gibson, J, McField, M & Wells, S 1998, ‘Coral reel management in Belize: an approach through integrated coastal zone management’, Ocean & Coastal Management, vol. 39, no. 3, pp. 229-244.
Kirkwood, FG & Matura-Shepherd, A 2011, ‘Offshore oil vs. 3E‘s (Environment, Economy & Employment), in Palomares, MLD, Pauly D (eds.), Too Precious to Drill: the Marine Biodiversity of Belize, pp. 3-7. Fisheries Centre Research Reports 19(6). Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia [ISSN 1198-6727].