Features — 27 November 2012 — by Albert J. Ciego

Turneffe Atoll is the largest and most biologically diverse coral atoll in the Western Hemisphere. Located 25 miles east of Belize City and surrounded by deep oceanic waters, Turneffe is approximately 30 miles long and 10 miles wide.

The Turneffe Atolls was declared a Marine Reserve yesterday Thursday, November 22, by Hon. Lisel Alamilla, Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development. The commemoration and signing ceremony was held at Old Belize at Mile 4 on the George Price Highway.

The reserve was enacted In September, by Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development.

Minister Alamilla told reporters that over 20 years ago, Turneffe Atoll had been a gap, like a big hole in the marine protected areas system. It was already recognized that it is of ecological importance, and that the area needed to be protected and managed.

However, it was not done. The Atoll is now being recognized and it will be managed like any other marine reserve, and it will be used and enhanced. Ten percent of the area will be a no-take zone, but people can fish in all the other areas. A large monetary contribution was made by the Bert Arelli Foundation, in the millions of dollars. The money will be used to set up the management for the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve

According to the Oceanic Society, the islands, some larger than 5,000 acres, are covered by at least 77 different vegetation types. Mangrove forests are interspersed with brackish lagoons, covering most of the low-lying areas. A reef crest and magnificent shallow coral buttresses are followed by the reef rim on the outer reef drop-off.

Turnoff’s healthy reefs support diverse species including the endemic white spotted toadfish and white lined toadfish. The abundant sponges offer rich feeding grounds for the endangered hawksbill sea turtle and atoll beaches serve as nesting sites for loggerhead and green sea turtles.

Historically, Blackbird Caye South was known to have the largest sea turtle nesting site on the Atoll, and in recent years, loggerhead turtles have successfully nested at the Blackbird Oceanic Field Station beaches.

Among the many reasons that the Turneffe Atoll was given Marine Reserve status are:

*It harbors the largest of the American saltwater crocodile population (approximately 200-300 individuals) and highest concentration of nesting activity in Belize.

*It is the only offshore range for the endangered Antillean manatee. Both single animals and cow-calf pairs have been observed.

*It’s littoral forests and brackish lagoons support amphibians, such as the giant marine toad; reptiles, such as the green tree snake, a sub-species endemic to Turneffe that includes some individuals with a brilliant blue coloration

*It is an important feeding and calving ground for bottlenose dolphins (approximately 150-200), which are common to the lagoon and shallow reefs.

*At least 60 species of birds are found at Turneffe during the height of the migratory season, including 18 species of nesting birds. Endangered and threatened nesting species include the Least Tern, Roseate Tern and the White Crowned Pigeon, which also feed in the littoral forest.

*The large expanses of intact mangrove and sea grass habitat and shallows serve as a huge nursery area for a wide array of fish species, crocodiles, manatees, dolphins and invertebrates. In addition to rich nursery areas, Turneffe has at least three known important fish spawning aggregation sites.

The Oceanic Society said that among many threats to the Turneffe Atoll are that until 2000, commercial development at Turneffe consisted of small-scale dive resorts and a fishing resort. However, in recent years, transfer of land from public to private ownership has escalated deforestation of prime natural habitats.

Lack of protection for the largely intact natural forest and clearing for development presents the greatest threat to the survival of all terrestrial wildlife on Turneffe.

Rainbow parrotfish, the largest herbivorous fish in the Atlantic Ocean, are totally dependent on mangrove nursery areas, and are becoming locally extinct in some locations due to mangrove clearance, which also threatens reef health through algal overgrowth.

Illegal fishing is a growing problem, exacerbated by the lack of any enforcement presence on the atoll. In particular, it involves the harvesting of undersized and out-of-season marine species. Illegal fishing gear harms non-target species such as manatees and sea turtles.

However, onshore conservation and other regulations will now be enacted and proper monitoring will be carried out by the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve Management.

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