Conservation news

Belize imposes offshore oil moratorium to protect reefs


  • Belize stopped the exploration for oil in its waters as of Dec. 29, 2017.
  • Environmentalists and local businesses opposed a 2016 plan to begin wider oil exploration around Belize, halting those plans within weeks.
  • Tourism directly contributed about 14 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2016, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, and 50 percent of Belize’s 360,000 people depend on tourism or fishing for their livelihoods.
  • Conversely, WWF estimated that an oil spill would cost $280 million in cleanup costs.

The government of Belize halted all exploration for oil in its territorial waters from Dec. 29, becoming one of the first developing countries to turn away from oil in favor of protecting the ocean environment.

“This is truly ‘The People’s Law,’” Janelle Chanona, vice president of the NGO Oceana in Belize, said in a report by teleSUR. “Belizeans have remained steadfast in their opposition to offshore oil since they became aware that marine assets were at risk of irreversible damage from the offshore oil industry.”

That opposition began in earnest when the government shared its plans for oil exploration near the Belize Barrier Reef. At that point, WWF started a campaign during which 450,000 people emailed the government about offshore drilling, according to an article at Quartz.

“Belize is a small country making a mighty commitment to putting the environment first,” Nadia Bood, a WWF reef scientist, said in the Quartz article.

A stingray in Belize. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The Belize Barrier Reef System Reserve has been a UNESCO world heritage site for more than two decades. The 300-kilometer (186-mile) stretch of coral in the Caribbean Sea is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It is home to turtles, crocodiles and manatees — among the roughly 1,400 species found in Belize’s reefs.

Such wildlife is a huge draw for tourists, who contribute about 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to Quartz. The Guardian reports that 50 percent of Belize’s people depend on tourism or fishing for their livelihoods. The population of Belize is 360,000, according to the CIA World Factbook.

But environmental groups like WWF and Oceana were concerned that seismic technology used to probe for oil, which would have occurred less than 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) from the reef based on the 2016 proposal, could have tragic consequences for wildlife and fisheries.

“We do know that for dolphins and whales, it can cause deafness, disturb communications, and disrupt migration patterns,” Chris Gee, the head of campaigns at WWF-UK, said in an interview with Mongabay in 2016. “Additionally, such surveys have been shown to impact negatively catch rates for fishers, especially during testing periods.”

What’s more, WWF estimated that an oil spill would cost $280 million in cleanup costs.

Lighthouse Reef in Belize seen from space. Photo by Jesse Allen (NASA Earth Observatory) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“Ending oil activities will encourage other countries to follow suit and take the urgent action that is needed to protect our planet’s oceans,” Gee told Quartz. “Like the Belize Barrier Reef, nearly half of natural World Heritage sites worldwide are threatened by industrial pressures.”

Belize’s shutdown of offshore oil activity preceded U.S. President Donald Trump’s Jan. 4 announcement that he wanted to open most of his country’s waters to oil and gas drilling.

Several state governments bristled at the move. Florida Governor Rick Scott got the Trump administration to take his state out of the running for offshore projects. And Virginia’s incoming governor wrote a letter to Secretary Ryan Zinke of the Department of the Interior in which he argued that drilling could put his state’s tourism and fishing sectors in peril.

Businesses that depend on Belize’s natural largesse — including the Great Blue Hole, which oceanographer Jacques Cousteau said was one of the top 10 dive sites on the planet — are in agreement.

“Legislation to stop offshore oil drilling in Belize is an extremely wise decision,” Ralph Capeling, an owner of Splash Dive Center, said in the Guardian article. “The economic potential of the reef clearly exceeds the value of any potential discoveries.”

Belize’s Great Blue Hole. By U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

And the potential for spills like the one in 2010 on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which blanketed parts of the Gulf in oil slicks and killed 11 people, has others questioning why the U.S. president would take such a risk.

“I was stunned to learn that President Trump recently decided to make moves to open up previously protected areas off the coast of the US to oil exploration and drilling,” John Searle told the Guardian. Searle owns Sea Sports Belize in Belize City.

“I guess he must have a very short memory,” he added. “Can someone please tweet #deepwaterhorizon?”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misstated the population of Belize. It is 360,000, not 190,000. Also, the direct contribution of tourism to the Belizean economy was 14.1 percent in 2016, according the World Travel and Tourism Council. We regret the errors.

Banner image of fish in Belize by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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