Applying Science in Belize: from Taxonomy to Policy

This article was written by research assistant, Sarah Harper, and appears in the July/August 2011 newsletter.

The Sea Around Us project and Oceana team up for a conference to discuss what’s at risk, from a marine biodiversity perspective, if plans go ahead to drill for oil off the coast of Belize. The conference, co-hosted by Daniel Pauly and Deng Palomares, held in Belize City on June 29 and 30th was entitled Too precious to drill: the marine biodiversity of Belize. At the conference marine biologists, taxonomists and economists provided an exhaustive list of reasons the precious and pristine marine environment of Belize could be at risk. With some of the healthiest coral reefs, manatee populations, shark diversity and reef fish spawning aggregations in the Caribbean, Belize would lose a lot from an oil spill1. Tourism and fisheries are particularly at risk as these both rely on a healthy marine environment, and provide jobs, revenue and food to the people of Belize.

Just over a year ago, the International NGO Oceana, which recently opened an office in Belize City, caught wind of plans to develop an offshore oil industry in Belize. Leaked govermnment documents revealed a map of the territorial waters of Belize, a checkerboard of oil exploration consessions. Oceana, the largest international NGO focused solely on ocean conservation, raised the alarm bell and decided that quick action was needed to engage and empower the people of Belize to stand up to the government and protect their precious natural wealth. A campaign was launched with a petition to be signed by the people of Belize demanding a referendum on oil exploration offshore and in protected areas. Oceana met their target with over 10% of the voting population signing the petition (17,000+ signatures), the minimum requirement for a referendum to be called, and continues to raise awareness throughout the country with their colourful campaign bus (see photo) and heavy media engagements.

Further to their in-country efforts to engage the public, Oceana teamed up with the Sea Around Us project to deliver the scientific evidence required for a strong case against offshore drilling in Belize. A conference was set for the end of June 2011 and international scientists selected to share their expertise, including Andrés Cisneros-Montemayor, Dirk Zeller and myself. One of the goals of the conference was to repatriate the knowledge and expertise that had been gleaned from years of scientific study within Belize but that had not necessarily stayed within its borders. Many detailed studies have been conducted on diverse aspects of the Belizean marine environment but have been published abroad. The conference aimed to bring this knowledge back to Belize and use it as a tool to inform and improve decision-making.

Attendance at the two-day conference included fishers, government deligates, the US embasador to Belize, media, NGO’s and citizens of Belize. While the conference was well-attended, the main outlet for disseminating this information to the general public was the media, via breakfast television shows, radio, talk shows, etc.

The conference concluded with a letter to the government of Belize signed by 20 scientists from 10 ten nationaltities and most with years of experience studying the marine environment of Belize. This professional statement re-iterated the importance and value of the marine evironment and the need to protect it from anthropogenic threats, offshore oil drilling in particular.

With the conference concluded, a scientific report just released and a flurry of media exposure, the question remains: to drill or not to drill? The hope is that the government wakes up to an informed public who are now asking the tough questions: who will benefit from offshore oil drilling? Who will pay the price for the high environmental costs associated with this industry?
Perhaps I am biased given my background in marine conservation, but I think that in the waters of Belize, drilling for oil just doesn’t make sense! On the last day of the conference, the scientists and media adventured offshore to Turneffe Atoll, a typical reef for this area known for its excellent diving, snorkeling and sportfishing opportunities. We stopped for lunch at a lodge nestled in amongst the mangroves linning the atoll and heard about the decade long struggle to get the Atoll designated as a marine reserve in order to better preserve its natural beauty. Unfortunately, this Atoll lies within the largest of the oil consessions own by Princess Petroleum Ltd. and likely one of the first areas to be drilled. This Atoll alone brings in 40 million USD annually from flyfishing for bonefish, tarpon and permit. This is money that goes directly into the Belizean economy and to the people of Belize. Conversely, the majority of oil revenue from drilling in the waters adjacent to this popular fishing hole would go mainly to the international investors of the oil companies. Simply looking at the economic picture, drilling for oil would likely not improve the economic situation in Belize and the risk in terms of losses both in fisheries and tourism are huge.

On the biological side, Belize also stands to lose a lot. The conference highlighted over 2,000 marine species of fish, invertebrate and plants, found in the waters of Belize and now documented in FishBase and SeaLifeBase. I was able to experience first hand some of this incredible diversity and abundance of life with a snorkel through the reef at Hol Chan marine reserve, not far from Turneffe Atoll. A glance around the marine reserve revealed a tremendous array of sharks, rays, turtles, reef fish, dolphins, corals, and much more. Belize has arguably the healthiest Antillean manatee population in the world and still has relatively abundant shark populations, including whale sharks. Looking around as I snorkeled through the reef, I could see that an oil spill in the waters of Belize would have an incredibly devastating effect. A catastrophic oil spill, given recent events in the Gulf of Mexico and other parts of the world, is quite possible. Drilling for oil offshore is much riskier than onshore, and in a biologically rich and diverse marine environment such as Belize, the risks are too high—in my opinion. An oil spill could wipe everything out and Belize would be left with nothing-no tourism, no fishing!

Throughout the conference, Audrey-Matura Sheppard, VP of Oceana Belize, emphasized the importance of the reef in providing food security and jobs, “Think about Belize without the reef? Where would we be without that?”. The Belize barrier reef, the largest barrier reef system in the northern hemisphere and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a sense of national pride, a source of livelihoods, food security and jobs for the people of Belize. That is definitely worth protecting!

For more information about marine biodiversity in Belize, the conference and its outputs, visit this website.

1 McCrea-Strub, A. and Pauly, D. (2011) Oil and fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. Ocean and Coastal Law Journal [in press].

Sumaila responds to Branch et al. in Nature

Economist Rashid Sumaila recently responded to the paper by Trevor Branch and colleagues in the journal Nature:

The trophic fingerprint of marine fisheries’ (Nature, 468, 431-435, 2010), has intensified the debate on how best to measure the impact of commercial fishing on ocean biodiversity: Is catch data useful in telling us what is happening in the ocean or do we need stock assessment information in order to say something meaningful? As an economist, I cannot contribute to this debate but I can ask some questions: What conclusion does one come to if one uses one or the other of these approaches?If one ends up with the same conclusion then the debate is only of academic interest. If the conclusions reached are different, what are the potential costs to the world should one or the other be incorrect? In general, proponents of the use of stock assessments for measuring the ‘health’ of ocean fish populations, led by Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington, conclude that ocean fish populations are doing just fine, while those who use catch data, spearheaded by Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia, come to the conclusion that global fish stocks are in bad shape. Depending on which of these two camps wins the argument, the world would either stick to the status quo and continue to manage global fisheries as we currently do, or the world community would double its efforts to manage global fisheries sustainably. Should the former conclusion turn out to be incorrect, the world would have saved some costs by continuing to fish without further management restrictions, with the consequence that ocean biodiversity would be eroded further, thereby supplying less and less fish with time. On the other hand, if the latter turns out to be incorrect, the world would have incurred unnecessary cost due to stricter management but would have an ocean rich in biodiversity that is capable of supplying fish into the future.

Read more on this issue here.

MSC Critique Chosen As Part of Nature’s Top Six of 2010

Seafood stewardship in crisis, by Sea Around Us Project members Jennifer Jacquet and Daniel Pauly, as well as David Ainley, Sidney Holt, Paul Dayton & Jeremy Jackson, was chosen as one of Nature’s top six comment pieces of the year. The piece criticizes recent seafood certifications by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and makes suggestions on how the certification could be improved. Read the full piece here.

Leah Biery on oil dispersants: The easy way to clean house

At the end of August, I moved to Vancouver from Sanibel Island, Florida. Sanibel is a tiny island in the Gulf of Mexico, where millions of gallons of oil have spilled since the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20, 2010. When people learn that I am from the Gulf region, they usually ask how much oil I saw on nearby beaches. Surprisingly, the answer is none.

Oil has washed ashore in the northern region of the Gulf, closer to the spill, but southern Florida’s coast appears largely oil-free. The absence of visible oil in southwest Florida is probably due to a combination of natural and anthropogenic factors. The Loop Current flows relatively far offshore, so it has not played a significant part in carrying oil or tarballs to SW Florida’s coastal areas (see figure). Also, major storms with the potential to push oil inland have bypassed the area so far this hurricane season.

Despite the pristine beach conditions in SW Florida, it is important to remember that the lack of visible oil does not necessarily indicate a lack of presence. Chemical dispersants played a key role in hiding surface oil that might otherwise have washed up on beaches today.

Dispersants are chemicals that break oil into small droplets, which are then distributed throughout the water column by wave action and currents. Dispersants do not clean up or get rid of the oil – they simply spread it out. In July alone, the US dropped one third of the world’s supply of dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico, effectively making the oil difficult to find.

You can compare the use of dispersants to a common scenario that most everyone experienced as a child – hiding a mess from your parents. Your mom is angry about the messy state of your room, so she tells you to clean it up. Instead of cleaning up the right way – putting each item where it belongs – you shove everything under the bed, hiding the problem. By using dispersants, the responsible parties were hiding the oil spill instead of cleaning it up.

Hiding the mess is an attractive temporary solution, but the problem becomes apparent when your mom looks under the bed. Now you are in big trouble. The consequences are much worse than if you had just initially taken the responsibility and time to clean up correctly.

A recent study of core samples taken from multiple locations in the Gulf revealed as much as a 5 cm layer of oil on top of the normal bottom sediments. Samantha Joye, a professor from the University of Georgia who collected the core samples, said in an interview with NPR, “The sheer coverage here is leading us all to come to the conclusion that it has to be sedimented oil from the oil spill, because it’s all over the place.” (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId= 129782098&ps=cprs)

Using dispersants to hide the oil was a fast and easy way to maximize the number of clean beaches and keep the general public happy by making the unpleasant effects of the oil spill appear to go away. However, the long-term environmental and ecological effects of spreading oil throughout the water column are unknown. The Obama administration’s leader of the scientific response to the oil spill, Marcia McNutt, admitted last week that the government decided to use dispersants without prior knowledge of the potential environmental effects, saying “there was no science when you apply [chemical dispersants] in the deep sea — we didn’t know the impacts on sea life.”She also acknowledged that it may be years before we know the full impact of the decision (http://www.poptech.org/blog/marcia_mcnutt_ on_uncertainty_in_the_flow).There is a strong chance that the combination of oil and chemical ingredients in the dispersants will have harmful effects on marine life and potentially the humans who choose to consume that seafood in the near future.

Naturally, oil floats on the surface. This makes it possible (although very difficult) to clean up. Sending oil to the bottom of the ocean makes it virtually impossible to remove. It also damages sea grass beds and coral reefs, and the oil is inadvertently consumed by mussels and other filter feeders – many of which make up the base of the Gulf food web. The chemicals in the oil (mixed with the mysterious chemicals in the dispersants) could accumulate up the food chain over time until high levels are found in commonly-consumed species. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is monitoring seafood from the Gulf of Mexico carefully, and a number of independent studies are in progress.

The long-term effects of dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico are unclear at this point. The Gulf is one of the world’s top food-producing regions, so dispersants could have huge implications for fisheries. Thanks to dispersants, people in southwest Florida can enjoy the beaches now, but they may not be able to enjoy local seafood safely in the years to come.

Figure: Major currents in the Gulf of Mexico. Near SW Florida, the Loop Current flows far enough offshore that it has not carried oil to beaches.

This article is written by Sea Around Us M.Sc. student Leah Biery