Belize government imposes moratorium to protect world's second largest reef

Marine conservationists and environmental activists in the Central American country of Belize are celebrating the promise made in August by that country's prime minister to enact legislation banning offshore oil activity around the Belize Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to more than 500 species of fish and 60 species of coral.

The announcement of legislation to enforce a moratorium by Prime Minister Dean Barrow follows public outrage and mobilization by the NGO Oceana Belize, after a ship owned by the multinational firm TGS was spotted conducting seismic soundings for oil around the barrier reef late last year, according to an Oceana press release. TGS has its operational headquarters in Houston, Texas, and conducts seismic surveys and gathers data for oil and gas companies worldwide

In comments on the Belizean government's decision, Marco Lambertini, director general, World Wildlife Fund International, said, “The Belize government’s commitment to protect the Belize Barrier Reef sets an example for the kind of leadership we urgently need to protect our planet’s oceans and some of its most productive, outstanding – and yet, extremely vulnerable – places.”

The 220-kilometer-long Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System is the largest in the Western Hemisphere, second in size only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef. It provides income to almost half of Belize's population of 400,000 people through tourism and fisheries, and provides 15 percent of the country's GDP when income from scientific research is included.

The Belizean government had initially promised in 2015 that it would not permit oil exploration around the reef, in keeping with the need to safeguard it from possible damage should an oil spill occur. Moreover, seismic guns used for oil exploration can kill fish eggs and larvae, as well as deafen whales and dolphins. However, there was no legislation in place to back up the promise.

Then late last year, according to Oceana Belize, a phone tip and satellite tracking data brought the activities of TGS' ship to its attention. The NGO widely publicized the information which galvanized Belizeans to take action to halt the testing.

Tense public meetings with government officials and intense pressure locally and globally followed, according to Oceana Belize's press release. Then on 15 August 2017, Prime Minister Barrow wrote to Oceana Belize's Vice President Janelle Chanona informing her that his government will be taking legislation to Parliament, in October, to impose a moratorium on offshore oil exploration around the reef.

“Once enacted, this legislation would signal Prime Minister Barrow’s administration’s recognition that the quality of our lives directly depends on the integrity of natural resources and that the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of Belizeans who depend on the reef are not disposable,” Chanona said. “This legislation will also make Belize a leader in protecting corals and safeguarding coastal and marine ecosystems – actions that will hopefully prompt similar actions around the world.”


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