Arts, Culture & Media

Caribbean reef

For our Geo Quiz, we're looking for the “northernmost” country in Central America. The country in our sights is about the size of Massachusetts, but its borders include 240 miles of Caribbean shoreline.

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And offshore is the second-longest barrier reef in the world, after Australia's Great Barrier Reef. It's an undersea chain of coral reefs and rich sea floor that surrounds several hundred cayes, or islands.

The World's David Leveille tells us how this Central American country is taking a major step to protect its barrier reef.

The 500-mile-long Mesoamerican Barrier Reef runs from Cancun at the tip of Mexico's Yucutan Peninsula all the way to Honduras. It's considered one of the richest areas of marine life in the Caribbean.

And smack in the middle is the Central American nation of Belize - that's our answer.

Charles Darwin once noted the “remarkable” diversity of sea plants and animals in the Mesoamerican Reef. And now a century later, Belize has stepped up to protect its 200-mile stretch of the reef.

Last week, Belize imposed a complete and permanent ban on a type of fishing known as bottom trawling in all of its waters.

Margot Stiles, a marine scientist with the environmental group Oceana, says bottom trawling can be extremely destructive: “Some people compare it to deforestation because not only do you catch the fish, but anything that is on the bottom is knocked over by the weighted nets that get dragged across the sea floor, so that includes coral or other sea floor habitats, or other fish that you might not want that end up getting killed or thrown away.”

That haul often includes sea turtles, and marine mammals. The trawling ban goes into effect December 31st on the barrier reef and all surrounding areas of seafloor out 200 miles into the Caribbean.

The government plan will also buy out a local fleet of big shrimp trawlers. Stiles says that in turn should also help some other local residents, Belize's small scale fishermen: “The traul impacts on the habitat and overfishing problems are now going to be ended and there's really going to be direct benefit to all the people fishing from canoes and fishing hook and line and need access to those reef fish.” The trawling ban is intended keep the Belize Barrier reef a healthy eco-system for fish and coral. But Stiles says a healthy reef also protects Belize's reputation as a top diving and snorkeling destination:

“On a single day, if you go out of southern Belize near where the trawl vessels had operated in the past, you can spend the morning looking at tiny reef fish - one of my favorites is electric blues stripes - dive in and out of crevices, or a whale shark spawning fish. Its just an unusual place, [with] migratory animals, whales and dolphins coming thru. A lot of people say the Caribbean is completely lost and trashed and there's nothing left there, but Belize still has a little piece of healthy reef.”

Stiles says many coastal areas around the world are starting to reconsider whether destructive fishing practices are the best way to get the most food for the most people. With its bottom trawling ban, Belize joins Venezuela and Palau - they've also stopped the practice to protect their piece of underwater turf.