The lion fish and fish diversity in two protected marine areas of the Caribbean Sea

By Martin Mowforth (Photo credits: Blue Ocean Network and Activist Angler).

Lion fish (Pterois volitans) are native to the Indo-Pacific, but are now established along the southeast coast of the U.S., the Caribbean, and in parts of the Gulf of Mexico. It is thought that their ‘invasion’ of these areas of sea over the last 25 years may have been due to humans dumping them at sea from their personal aquaria, although earlier reports that they escaped from one large, breached aquarium after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 are now thought to have been mistaken. They present a problem to many native fish as they are able to eat anything at least half of their own size on account of their extremely wide mouth and expandable stomach.

In 2016 the Environmental Network for Central America (ENCA) supported a programme of protection for young lobsters on whose growth many families of the indigenous Guna Indians depend (for both nutrition and finance) in and around the San Blas Islands off the Caribbean coast of Panamá. Through the local Centre for Environmental and Human Development (CENDAH), the Guna fishermen and lobster catchers devised a system of ‘casitas cubanas’ under which the young and adolescent lobsters could hide during the day when they would be vulnerable to prey by the lion fish. A report of the programme was given in ENCA 68 (November 2016).

Lion fish have few predators and they eat small crustaceans and fish, including the young of commercially valuable fish and, as the Guna have discovered, young and adolescent lobsters. Their potential danger is not restricted to fish species, but also relates to the health of the coral because they eat what are known as ‘grazers’ and ‘cleaners’ of the coral which eat the algae that grows over the reef. The presence of the grazers and cleaners keeps the algal levels low and allows the corals to get enough oxygen to survive and to spawn.

A paper by Cobián-Rojas and Schmitter-Soto (2018 in the International Journal of Tropical Biology) reports on the results of research with the title given above. The two protected marine areas in which the study was carried out were the Guanahacabibes National Park (Cuba) and the Xcalak Coral Reefs (Quintana Roo, Mexico); and the study carried out visual censuses of fish species in coral reef habitats during both dry and rainy seasons in 2013 to 2015.

In general, the results showed a greater wealth of species in the Cuban protected area than in the Mexican area. The species diversity was shown to decrease in only one census site in Cuba and in two sites in the Mexican area, although it is posited that this may have been due to fishing activity rather than to the lion fish. It was further posited that the effects of the lion fish on species diversity may not yet be detected.

Mass turtle deaths

Around 300 endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles were found dead and floating off Mexico’s southern coast in August. This follows a similar die-off close to Jiquilisco Bay on the coast of El Salvador in November 2017.

It is thought that the most recent case may be due to asphyxiation, fish hooks or harmful algae, but the matter is still under investigation. In the earlier case of the Jiquilisco die-off, the turtles are believed to have died in what is known as a ‘red tide’, in which nutrients or chemical runoff causes toxic algae to bloom, releasing deadly compounds into the water.

The articles in the following links give further details about both die-off events.

The danger of biodiversity offsetting

The following press release from Friends of the Earth UK refers specifically to the situation within the UK and case studies within the UK. It is given here because of the danger of the use of biodiversity offsetting on an international stage, especially in relation to the rich biodiversity in Central America.

FOE Press release: Offsetting is a massive threat to wildlife, warn environment groups
Monday, June 2, 2014 – 10:57

Biodiversity offsetting is already being used by developers to justify schemes that will cause irreversible harm to nature, warn over 15 environment groups across the world today (Monday 2 June 2014), ahead of a major biodiversity offsetting conference in London this week.

It comes as Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is soon to decide on controversial plans to allow developers to destroy precious wildlife habitat, provided there is an attempt to offset the damage elsewhere.

Such schemes are known as biodiversity offsetting, and FERN and Friends of the Earth are concerned that its introduction could allow developers to push through projects that would have devastating impacts on irreplaceable habitats and our wildlife.

New evidence published today by Friends of the Earth and FERN identifies a number of cases around the UK where offsetting is already being proposed by developers. This evidence and the accompanying photographs will be showcased in a public meeting in London tonight organised by environment groups from around the world.

One such case is Smithy Wood, near Sheffield, an ancient woodland much loved by local people, which is now threatened by a motorway service station. The developer has proposed planting new trees and improving management of another woodland to offset the damage, but local campaigners say they would still lose a forest that it would take 850 years to re-establish.

Friends of the Earth Nature Campaigner Sandra Bell said:

“Developers are already gearing up to use biodiversity offsetting to bulldoze some of our most precious wildlife sites.

“There is no clear evidence that biodiversity offsetting works – attempts abroad have frequently ended in failure.

“Owen Paterson should stop gambling with our green and pleasant land, abandon his ill-conceived offsetting plans and give UK nature the protection it so sorely needs.”

FERN Biodiversity Offsetting Campaigner Hannah Mowat said:

“Offsetting is already weakening the UK’s planning laws and exposing nature to new threats.

“The EU – which is considering similar legislation – should watch closely before going further.

“Together we can prevent offsetting from creating chaos and upsetting nature laws across Europe.”

Notes to editor
1. Case studies and photos are available in the biodiversity offsetting evidence published by Friends of the Earth and FERN:
2. Campaigners and biodiversity experts will gather this evening (Monday 2 Jun 2014) in a venue in Regent’s Park for an open meeting to discuss the problems with offsetting schemes in the UK and overseas Photos of offsets from around the world will be exhibited.
3. The conference ‘To No Net Loss of Biodiversity and Beyond’ will take place on 3 and 4 June. It is hosted by BBOP, an organisation committed to biodiversity offsetting along the ZSL, Defra and Forest Trends Isaac Rojas from Friends of the Earth International and Hannah Mowat from FERN will be speaking in a plenary session on Tuesday 3 June 2014 to offer an alternative to the pro-offsetting perspective being promoted at the conference.

Friends of the Earth
26-28 Underwood Street
N1 7JQ

Reproduced by kind permission of Friends of the Earth UK

Coral conference in Belize, 2016

July 7, 2016. Channel 5 Belize | Article reproduced here by kind permission of Mike Rudon.

Government of Belize Scores Poorly on Environmental Regulations

Of the six indicators, G.O.B. received the worst marks in the area of environmental regulations. Candy Gonzalez was environmental-regulations-1scathing in her evaluation, and told News Five that recent projects have shown that developers have a definite impact on the decisions made by the Department of the Environment.

Candy Gonzalez, President, Belize Institute of Environmental Law & Policy

“I think that we have proof of that in seeing some of the, let’s say, they are called financial investment contracts or host country agreements – the agreements like were made between NCL and the government – and you have to really question where the balance was in terms of the environment and development. I think a lot of things that are already in the pipeline in terms of development highlight the fact that development is taking the lead in the race over protection of the environment, and I think it’s important to each and every one of us to try and direct attention to the fact that you might put money in your pocket today, but tomorrow you might be left with nothing and no way to make a dollar because you’ve sold everything that was of value, and there has to be a balance. There has to be a balance that looks toward the future.”

A Reef Scorecard for Belize’s Barrier Reef System

political-will0005Today, various entities dedicated to the important work of preserving and protecting our natural heritage presented what they are calling a reef scorecard. It’s all about getting Belize’s Barrier Reef System off the World Heritage Site’s endangered list, where it has languished since 2009. So is enough being done to ensure that happens anytime soon? News Five’s Mike Rudon attended G.O.B.’s report card day and has the story.

Mike Rudon, Reporting

Belize’s Barrier Reef System is responsible for fifteen percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. But it is in danger. It’s a World Heritage Site, but it’s been on the endangered list since 2009 and obviously not enough has been done to get it off.

Valentino Shal, World Wildlife Fund

political-will0010“What we are doing here today is to look at what needs to be done to get the Belize Barrier Reef System off the endangered list and also to ensure that it is a healthy and functioning resource. The indicators of this score card are based on the exact same indicators that are included in the desired state of conservation report that the World Heritage Committee and UNESCO gave to the government. So this is a report that outlines all of the indicators and issues that the government must address in order for it to be reinstated.”

This scorecard is really a report card of how effective government has been in implementing policies and actions to address the indicators. A score of one signified major concerns. A score of two – Some concerns and a score of three – good progress. None of the six indicators received a three, but five of six received a two – meaning that there has been some progress, but not enough. The first indicator was oil, specifically offshore drilling.

Janelle Chanona, Vice President, OCEANA Belize

political-will0004“Roughly eighty-five percent of our exclusive economic zone and our territorial waters would be vulnerable to offshore oil activity if the moratorium was ever lifted, and that really is the key takeaway for where we are on oil that there is pressing need for us to get the moratorium formalized for the government to outline the specific conditions under which that moratorium would be lifted and that is why we have come concerns regarding progress.”

Mangroves was the second, particularly the unregulated removal of mangroves from sensitive zones.

Roberto Pott, Country Coordinator, Healthy Reefs

political-will0009“We have to be able to catalog and recognize the areas that are sensitive in terms of our fishing industry, our tourism industry and in terms of shoreline protection. There is little to no incentive for development to maintain mangroves intact and so we need to revisit that and see how we can improve that.”


The third indicator was Coastal Development and Tourism.

Valentino Shal

“In February of this year the Cabinet adopted the Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan after several years. It’s a little late but still good. We welcome that. But at the same time it’s clear that there are insufficient resources being put towards the implementation of the plan, so we have a problem there.”

The fourth – Fisheries.

Roberto Pott

“We were so optimistic when the Coastal Zone Plan came through, at least I was optimistic that when the plan passed the Fisheries Bill would have followed shortly. We have to give recognition to the government that they did give the Managed Access Program started, and that’s major progress. It’s a major milestone for the region and maybe the world. But we need to get the policy in place that would support Managed Access.”

And the fifth – World Heritage Value.

Amanda Burgos-Acosta, Executive Director, Belize Audubon Society

political-will0007“Yes, we have mentioned the Integrated Coastal Zone management Plan and the fact that that policy is now Cabinet endorsed, but it’s difficult to enforce it, so it needs some kind of legal teeth. What we really were recommending is that within the World Heritage Site that there is an Act or a Bill that can guide development. That was one of the triggers that actually led to our inscription on the endangered list, because we had development within some of the more pristine sites within our World Heritage.”

While those areas received scores of two, the area of Environmental Regulations received a definite score of one – meaning major concern.

Candy Gonzalez, President, Belize Institute of Environmental Law & Policy

“We can’t applaud the Environmental Protection Act like we used to be able to. We’ve had a lot of promises that it’s going to be improved, but until those things are actually put into law, then they’re just words and that’s the problem with a lot of the things called Cabinet decisions and Memorandums and understandings of one kind or another. They can be made in a day and they can be changed in a day.”

According to the organizers and presenters of the scorecard, it’s about making sure that all of us realize that we play a role.

Janelle Chanona

“Government knows…we have regular meetings and regular conversations with our government partners to consult and to talk about how we move forward from here, but it’s just as important for the public to be constantly updated with what is happening, why it’s not happening, how it needs to happening, what are we talking about long term. We are custodians of this but we’re not just custodians, we are direct beneficiaries – every single one of us through all these goods and services and it’s about really thinking about long terms and balancing everything that we have to balance to ensure that we can always benefit from this.”


Initiatives to protect Belize sea life show good results; but threats remain a worry

Summary prepared by Pamela Machado (Pamela Machado is a Brazilian student of journalism in London)

October 2017

Belize’s coral reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world, shows strong signs of resilience as corals keep growing despite environmental threats and damages from tourism and man-made activities.

A restoration project in Laughing Bird Caye, southern Belize, has succeeded in giving hope to threatened marine species, reports the Guardian1. Despite survival pressures caused by external environmental factors, 90% of sea life has survived and is thriving, marking the endeavour as “the most impressive coral restoration effort in the Caribbean”. The project is led by a grassroots group born from the efforts of fishermen, tour guides, environmentalists and scientists.

Another step to keep marine creatures safe was taken early this October by the government of Belize when it announced the inauguration of the world’s first ray sanctuary. The waters of Belize are home to more than 20 species of rays, according to Florida International University2, whose scientists’ research inspired the creation of the sanctuary.

Due to an unhealthy environment – a result of the combination of climate change effects, overfishing and habitat loss, rays are threatened with extinction, with some species being critically endangered, such as the smalltooth sawfish and Ticon cownose rays. “I was surprised to hear how threatened rays are globally and decided that Belize could be a good global citizen by protecting them,” said Belize Fisheries Administrator Beverly Wade.

Regardless of the efforts from authorities and independent groups, numbers are far from representing an ideal scenario for environmental protection and preservation of the ecosystem in the waters of the reef. Laughing Bird Caye, for instance, although declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1996, entered the danger list in 2009.

Initiatives such as restoration projects and sanctuaries can only do so much in protecting their fauna and flora. Finding a healthy balance between human intervention and nature’s own pace can be a challenge, particularly in a country where preserving nature is also an important source of economic earnings. Approximately half of the Belizean population depends on activities such as snorkelling, diving and fishing – which come mainly from tourism.

The increasing levels of pollution and water contamination are causing fleshy macro algae to flourish excessively, impeding the further growth of corals. On top of that, oil extraction, poor law enforcement and construction of hotel resorts around the reef could be factors holding back the development of sea life in the future. If so far actions to preserve the reef ecosystem have been thriving, the growing exploration of and other pressures on these resources leave uncertainty on how long a sustainable balance can be kept.

1 Nina Lakhani, The Guardian, 22 August 2017

2 Florida International University, 4 October 2017