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Saturday, April 13, 2024

To – David


Young sailors stand on the shoulder of a Master and Commander: Charles Bartlett Hyde

Photo: (right) Charles Bartlett Hyde Contributed: Harbour Regatta...

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A tribute to C.B. Hyde Saturday, April 6,...

Happy National Heroes and Benefactors Day!

EditorialHappy National Heroes and Benefactors Day!

On March 6th Belizeans across the length and breadth of the Jewel will be in a festive mood, as our nation celebrates her many heroes and benefactors. There will be official ceremonies to honor our great men and women, those who are here and those who have gone on before. In what is by consensus the most glorious time to be outdoors in our country, Belizeans will be flying kites, paddling dories, sailing boats, swimming, playing ball, making merry wherever they are from the Hondo to the Sarstoon, from Benque Viejo Del Carmen to Halfmoon Caye.

It’s great to be in Belize. If you’re driving, do not speed, and be alert at all times. If you go swimming, follow all the safety rules. Happy National Heroes and Benefactors Day to all!

Celebrating our Reef Heroes

From the 4th to the 11th of March, environmentalists that are involved in the preservation of our marine space will gather to celebrate Reef Week. The heroes who are involved in the battle to protect our flora and fauna on land, and our water sheds are deserving of praise and support for their sterling efforts too, but the sun this week shines on our Reef Heroes, for fighting off developers who think progress is turning every mangrove island into a sandy beach, for driving back relentless oil companies that insist on drilling no matter the cost to our reef, and for exerting a little pressure on sometimes overzealous fisher folk who, pressed for survival in the here and now, have sometimes overfished.

Much of our sustenance comes from the reef. We have a thriving marine industry that supplies our tables with fish, conch, and lobster, and earns our country valuable foreign exchange. Tourism has become our top foreign exchange earner, and our number one attraction is our reef with its spectacular diving sites and rich fishing grounds.

Our reef protects us from the full wrath of hurricanes, and if a tsunami ever threatens our shores, it will be the reef and our belt of mangrove islands that save us from devastation. In September 1798, the reef played a critical role in the protection of the then fledgling Belize from an invading force.

It is our marine space that has considerably eased the burden, reduced the weight of a millstone called the Super Bond that threatened our nation with financial ruin. A 2017 Amandala report on that Super Bond said the interest payments had amounted to roughly $500 million since 2008, and that interest payments between 2017 and 2034 would cost us a whopping $800 million! In 2021, using some of our marine space for “collateral”, GOB was able to convert the choking Super Bond to the much more benign Blue Bond. The debt was nearly halved, and while it is still much a burden, it is far more manageable.

March 6th is a public and bank holiday, in lieu of the 9th of March. The day, now celebrated as National Heroes and Benefactors Day, was known for many decades as Baron Bliss Day, in honor of one of our country’s greatest benefactors. It was the reef, our stunning fisheries and cays that drew Baron Henry Edward Ernest Victor Bliss to our shores. It was our blessing that he bequeathed most of his material assets to our nation.

It takes a lot of effort by our Reef Heroes to lead the charge to protect our tremendous marine resources. It is their efforts that have saved the reef from being stripped of its World Heritage Site status by UNESCO, their most valiant stand being fighting off a government initiative to issue licenses to oil companies to drill in our waters. When the government ignored the demand of our Reef Heroes that the matter be put to a referendum, the Coalition to Save Our National Heritage, under the leadership of then Oceana Vice-President, Ms. Audrey Matura, organized a people’s referendum which overwhelmingly voted against oil exploration in our waters. Thus, the World Heritage Site status of the Belize Barrier Reef was preserved.

Successive attempts to do seismic testing to discover what resources lie under the seabed have been turned back. In the latest, in 2022, Prime Minister John Briceño hinted at an exercise to determine what mineral/oil wealth we had in our marine space, so we could leverage it with countries and organizations that would pay us to leave it untouched. But the present Vice-President of Oceana, Ms. Janelle Chanona, said GOB support of such testing clearly indicated its interest in oil exploration, and the organization countered with a petition drive to get the government to yield to a referendum on seismic testing.

Over the years there has been increased pressure on our fish stocks. Overfishing is believed to have caused the massive decline in Nassau groupers. For over two decades, spawning sites for groupers have been under strict protection by the Fisheries Department, with fishers being severely limited in where they could fish and what they could take. Despite these efforts, the grouper stock is yet to bounce back.

Protecting our fisheries takes a dedicated, concerted effort. The Commonwealth Blue Charter, in the 2021 paper, “Case Study: Belize — Towards Expansion of the No-Take Areas in the MPA System” said “Belize has a network of 14 marine protected areas (MPAs), with an additional 13 protected fish Spawning Aggregation sites, covering some 23.5 per cent of the country’s marine waters.” Speaking on the results of their labors, Fisheries Administrator, Ms. Beverly Wade said: “The fact that our two main commercial species, the spiny lobster and the queen conch, have remained stable for several years is a direct indicator of the success of the combination of protected areas and managed access.”

Shrimp trawling in our waters has been banned since 2010, and in 2020 our Reef Heroes successfully negotiated an end to gill netting. The threats are never ending. Our Fisheries Department, Coast Guard, and directly concerned NGOs such as TIDE, which manages the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, constantly patrol our waters to contain poaching and other illegal activities.

Silt brought down by the rivers and streams during the rainy season, and effluent from our cities and towns on the coast, are constant threats to the reef. Diseases and coral bleaching have damaged the reef in spots. But Belize’s Reef Heroes are determined in their fight. Biologist Lisa Carne’s NGO, Fragments of Hope, has replanted tens of thousands of corals over the past decade.

The reef is the main attraction for tourists, but ironically, the tourism industry is a great threat to its health and existence. In Belize City alone, no less than three companies have applied for licenses for massive projects to berth cruise ships, with one of them getting the go-ahead thus far. In an incredible turn, Waterloo, one of the applicants who hasn’t received the go-ahead largely because of serious environmental concerns, is reportedly threatening to sue the country if the company doesn’t get the green light.

Our Reef Heroes will be basking in the spotlight all of next week. They have earned it, for they continue to deliver for Belize, guiding developers and fishers who use our marine resources, because “For health, wealth and pleasure, our reef is a treasure!” Happy Reef Week to all!

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To – David

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