Conservation news

Belize suspends oil exploration near World Heritage Site after public outcry

  • Following public outcry, Belize officials have agreed to suspend their activities, and plan to hold a consultation with the stakeholders to chart out their future course of action.
  • The seismic surveys, which involve blasting shockwaves through the water using air guns, are proposed to occur less than a mile from this World Heritage site.
  • This could endanger the site’s marine wildlife, and threaten the livelihoods of more than 190,000 people in Belize who support their incomes through tourism and fisheries, conservationists say.

Last week, the government of Belize announced that it would begin oil exploration in the Atlantic-Caribbean waters, very close to the world’s second largest reef system — the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage site. The surveys, scheduled to start on October 20, were initiated a day earlier, angering environmentalists, tourism groups, and other stakeholders.

Following public outcry, Belize officials have agreed to suspend their activities. They also plan to hold consultation meetings with the various stakeholders to chart out their future course of action.

“We welcome the news that the government of Belize has suspended the seismic testing and promised to undertake wider consultation,” Nadia Bood, WWF’s Belize reef scientist, said in a statement. “Proceeding without understanding the risks to ocean life and people’s livelihoods was a bad decision. It was the right decision to suspend seismic operations, but until an offshore oil ban is legislated, the threat remains.”

Brain and tube corals of the Great Blue Hole in Belize. Photo by jeyhem. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System — comprising of seven protected areas — is the longest barrier reef in the Northern and Western Hemispheres. It hosts a wide variety of reefs and vibrant corals, and is home to a huge diversity of marine wildlife, including threatened marine species like the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), green turtle (Chelonia mydas), hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta), and the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus).

Conservationists fear that oil exploration activities will threaten this fragile site.

The seismic surveys, which involve blasting shockwaves through the water using air guns, are proposed to occur less than a mile away from this World Heritage site, Chris Gee, senior campaigns manager at WWF, told Mongabay. This could endanger the site’s marine wildlife, and threaten the livelihoods of more than 190,000 people in Belize who support their incomes through tourism and fisheries.

“We do know that for dolphins and whales, it can cause deafness, disturb communications, and disrupt migration patterns,” Gee said. “Additionally, such surveys have been shown to impact negatively catch rates for fishers, especially during testing periods.”

The Belize Barrier Reef is home to threatened species like the green turtle. Photo by Brocken Inaglory, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

UNESCO lists the Belize Barrier Reef System as a World Heritage Site in danger, threatened by coral dredging, unsustainable tourism and fishing activities, declining water quality, climate change, and potential oil spills.

Last year, in a bid to remove the site from this list, the government of Belize approved a policy that would ban offshore exploration in all seven areas of this World Heritage site. But the country is yet to pass the ban into law.

Oil spills in the World Heritage area would be catastrophic, conservationists say. A report by WWF estimated that cleaning up an offshore oil spill could cost $280 million, or 15 per cent of Belize’s annual GDP.

“The Belize reef, like all World Heritage sites, belongs to everyone, and the government has an obligation to protect it for future generations,” Bood said. “The UNESCO World Heritage Committee and people in the 192 countries it represents are waiting for Belize to pass laws restricting offshore oil. We hope this will happen soon.”