Trouble in Paradise

The Struggle to Save Belize’s Glover’s Atoll


photo of a palapa on a pier over turquoise waterErica Dybenko

We approach the suspicious fishing boat at dawn. It’s an outboard engine-powered craft rigged with a big wooden joist across the gunnels, a fulcrum for reeling in very heavy fish. The Belizean patrol craft we’re aboard vectors in from the east as the morning sun flares over the reef crest, lighting up the turquoise waters here at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Glover’s Atoll, about 30 miles from the coast of Belize. Named after an English pirate who once stashed booty here, the park is now home to another kind of treasure: pristine wilderness. Glover’s stretches over more than 200 square miles of coral structures and shallow lagoons; five small, palm-forested, Robinson Crusoe-worthy cayes are clustered together at the southern tip, providing a haven for thousands of birds. Perhaps most importantly, at a time when fish populations are crashing around the Caribbean, Glover’s is a piscine place of refuge. The robust fish populations here can still support healthy numbers of big predators such as giant sea turtles and several shark species, which, according to scientists, use the atoll to breed and bear their young. Here, it seems, paradise really hasn’t been lost ... at least, not yet.

We’re a couple of gringo reporteros on patrol with a unit of the Belizean Fisheries Department, hunting poachers among Glover’s hundreds of patch reefs. Because many parts of the Barrier Reef suffer from overfishing, reserves like Glover’s are a choice target for poachers, as well as licensed local fishermen. Three fourths of the atoll is protected from the higher impact fishing methods such as longlining or gill netting. Only spearguns or hand-lines are permitted, and the rangers enforce strict size limits. The remaining 25 percent of the reserve is designated a “Conservation Zone,” where fishing is completely prohibited. But the Fisheries rangers are undermanned and poorly equipped, lacking night-vision goggles, radios, or even sufficient fuel for patrols.

“The problem is obvious to everyone,” says Glover’s Chief Ranger Roberto Carballo as he pilots our skiff in alongside the fishing boat. “There are just too many fishermen these days. And not enough of us.”

Carballo has a rangy build and a boyish smile. He’s barefoot on patrol, his white uniform tunic untucked. Despite having been fired upon by poachers armed with everything from spearguns to shotguns, Carballo prefers to keep his service pistol in a briefcase near the helm. The other ranger aboard, Deputy Luis Novelo, wears a Soviet-made semiautomatic, unloaded and slung far back on his hip.

Nobody on the fishing boat waves when we hail them. Their vessel is about 20 feet long, cluttered with coolers and buckets. A radio hung from the joist blares loud punta music. The three young fishermen aboard are dressed in stained mesh shorts and jerseys. They tense perceptibly as the rangers begin their inspection.

The boat’s 27-year-old captain, Coleman Adolfo, has been fishing at Glover’s since boyhood. He speaks in a thick Kriol brogue, describing why he loves his trade. “You work honest,” he says, and eyes the rangers nervously. “You don’t molest no one, no one molest you.”

That’s when Carballo uncovers the poached nurse sharks, hidden beneath a tarp. Sharply curved longlines dangle from their mouths. Their snouts are blood-speckled, smashed from the poachers’ clubs. One is still aquiver; its gills flutter weakly. “They sell for two dollars a pound in Belize City,” the captain says.

These days, sharks are prime prey for fishermen in Belize. This is a relatively new phenomenon, as sharks have never been a part of the traditional diet here. Locals now catch them to supplement more traditional fillet fish like grouper, which, due to overharvesting, are no longer found in large numbers. Under the terms of an international agreement, Guatemalan shark canneries are also allowed to send ships to ply the Belize Barrier Reef. And there are constant rumors about Asian-owned trawlers scooping up sharks, removing the fins, and dumping them back in the water to die. Belize is home to a small but financially powerful Chinese immigrant community, and shark fin soup is printed boldly on the menus in many restaurants.

Carballo reminds the men that longlining for sharks is illegal everywhere at Glover’s Atoll. He orders Deputy Novelo to seize command of the vessel for the trip back to the ranger station, and Novelo very subtly puts the clip in his pistol.

“We’re just trying to make a living,” says Adolfo, who, we later discover, has a prior conviction for poaching lobster. A Belizean court will eventually fine the captain $2,500 for the violation, but the judge will decide not to suspend his fishing license.

Back at the ranger station, Novelo attempts to revive the one still-twitching nurse shark. He stands in the shallows, cradling the coffee-colored animal in his arms to force water through its gills. The poachers slouch at the end of the dock, smirking like delinquents. After several hours of man-to-shark resuscitation, the big bull is able to swim on his own. When the rangers loosen the rope from his tail, he glides powerfully across the sea grass, disappearing into deeper water.

In November 2004, a coalition of local environmentalists petitioned UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to upgrade the Belize Barrier Reef System – Glover’s Atoll included – to “In Danger” status. Four years later, no decision has been made. Meanwhile, say the petitioners, coral health and fish biomass are suffering catastrophic decline in the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere.

Because they are top-level predators, shark populations are an excellent indicator of overall health of a reef. Just as forests require wolves and jungles need big cats to keep prey populations in check, so do marine ecosystems require sharks. Unfortunately, shark populations in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and North Atlantic have declined by as much as 90 percent in the last quarter century. Without sharks, say scientists, second-tier predators like barracuda, skates, and rays will proliferate and take over the reef. The beta predators then overexploit their own prey base, depriving human fishermen of conch and lobster, as well as reducing the number of algae-eating herbivores, like parrot fish, which keep the coral beds free of seaweed. This leads to reefs being literally smothered to death by the macro-algae – an increasingly common condition that might well be irreversible.

photo of a man holding a shark off the side of a boat at seaCourtesy of Jeremy Kryt Comparing the number of sharks killed annually by humans to the number
of people eaten by sharks, we’re winning 73 million to four.

According to Professor Robert Steneck, a marine biologist from the University of Maine, climate change and pollution also combine to stress the Barrier Reef. But the biggest driver behind its decline seems to be overfishing. In assessing the health of a reef, marine biologists refer to what they call coral cover – the percentage of the reef that is made up of living coral. Steneck believes the ideal coral cover for Belize to be in the 50 to 60 percent range. Today, Steneck says, research indicates that coral cover on the reef is down to 11 percent.

“We can take it [coral reef health] as a kind of ecosystem-level canary in mineshaft earth,” Steneck says. “And from that perspective, I’d say our canary ain’t doing so swell. It’s looking pretty sick, this dying canary.”

Steneck’s metaphoric canary seems to be choking all across the region, not just in Belize. Recent meta-studies indicate that four fifths of the total Caribbean coral has been lost in the last three decades.

One of the most disturbing examples of reef collapse – and a potential worst-case scenario for Belize – is the utterly ravaged offshore ecosystem of the Dominican Republic. Fishermen have abused the reef there so badly that it’s become functionally deceased. Dive instructors report a nearly total loss of sharks. Instead of local catch, many restaurants serve fillets imported from as far away as Vietnam and Thailand. The high price of fish puts it out of reach for many families. It’s like some dystopian parable – people of an island nation who can no longer afford to eat fish.

“The situation is much worse due to the poverty,” says Dominican marine biologist Kelvin Guerrero, who works for an American NGO called Counterpart International. As in Belize, when the bigger fish disappeared, the fishermen began targeting the herbivorous reef-cleaning fish species, and seaweed quickly overwhelmed the coral. “This used to be a prime spot for marine tourism,” Guerrero says, “but we’ve lost what we once had. We weren’t careful with it. Hopefully we can bring it back someday.”

According to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the queen conch fishery of Belize has already collapsed. The spiny lobster is the most important catch for the country, with about 96 percent going to export. (Red Lobster is a major buyer.) Lobster landings peaked in 1981 and have since fallen by more than three fourths. Finfish numbers are similarly diminished, including the Nassau grouper. Like Great Banks cod, grouper was once a dietary staple, but is now endangered throughout its range. In Belize, the population of Nassau grouper has declined by more than 80 percent since the 1970s; if current trends continue, scientists say the species will disappear completely by 2013.

Dr. Rachel Graham, a marine biologist who works for WCS, has been gathering fisheries data on Belizean sharks since 2005. “Shark stocks have practically crashed,” Graham says. “Large sharks are now rare ... And the fishers are definitely targeting the mid-size species now.” She adds that the fishermen from Guatemala, having emptied their own stocks, are increasingly targeting Belize. “In fact,” says Graham, “I can safely say that sawfish – both species – are ecologically extinct in Belize and pretty much throughout the Mesoamerican Reef.”

Dr. Ellen Pikitch is an American marine biologist with the University of Miami’s Pew Institute for Ocean Science. Pikitch heads up a team of researchers that has been studying sharks at Glover’s Reef Atoll for almost a decade in the hopes of preserving these endangered animals. Pikitch has a round face, intelligent eyes, and is politely soft-spoken – except when she’s gushing about sharks.

“Sharks are being killed off faster than we can study them,” Pikitch says. “The public would be outraged if they knew what was going on.” Citing the number of sharks killed worldwide by humans each year compared to the number of humans killed by sharks, she says: “We’re beating the sharks by a score of 73 million to four.”

As part of their research project, Pikitch’s team keeps track of what kinds of sharks are being sold in the Belizean markets. When the project began nine years ago, there were almost no sharks in the market. Then a few years later, as grouper and other fish stocks dwindled, the scientists started seeing large adult sharks for sale. Nowadays, mature sharks are scarce on the reef, and the tables in the markets are dominated by juveniles. This is an ominous sign, Pikitch says, as it means young sharks are being killed off before they have time to reproduce.

Far from the mainland and protected by a maze of hull-wrecking reef heads, Glover’s has long been spared the worst ravages of modernity. Originally formed by an underwater seamount, it’s one of only four atolls in the Caribbean. Glover’s is home to 54 bird species, more than 30 types of coral, and no fewer than 145 species of fish. The park is also a sanctuary for at least three species of sea turtles, including the massive loggerhead. The WCS, aided by the Fisheries rangers, runs a turtle-monitoring program out of the research station here, and we’ve been allowed to join Novelo and Carballo and the scientists – swimming after the huge tortugas and wrangling them gently into the research boat to be tagged, measured, weighed, and released.

In addition to the turtle monitoring, we also get to assist the Pew team with several shark-tagging operations. The longlines used to catch the sharks are identical to those employed by the poachers. The lines are dozens of meters long, have to be pulled in by hand, and are often slimed with tentacles of stinging jellyfish. Then there are the sharks themselves – they twist and slash on the hooks, moving faster than the eye can follow.

The data being collected from the sharks at Glover’s has already proven vital. After nearly a decade of study, several clear patterns have emerged. Instead of being wandering nomads, the sharks prefer to live in cozy little home territories. The scientists have also observed that young Caribbean reef sharks travel in mass every night from the deep water of the fore-reef to the lagoon in order to avoid being eaten by the adults of their own species.

The most common sharks at Glover’s are nurse and Caribbean reef sharks. The scientists have found an impressive variety of other species in the park, including lemon, tiger, and hammerhead, and even the elusive Cuban night shark. They’ve also tagged a Galapagos shark here, only the second ever found in the Caribbean.

The most important finding is the fact that while shark populations almost everywhere else in the hemisphere seem to be plummeting, Glover’s Reef shark numbers have remained much the same for the last decade. The question is why.

photo of a sea turtle being held on the side of a boat at seaCourtesy of Jeremy Kryt Glover’s Atoll is a sanctuary for at least three kinds of turtles.

We stay several weeks at Glover’s Reef Atoll, assisting the scientists, exploring on our own with scuba gear, living like castaways in a thatch-roofed treehouse on Northeast Caye. A nine-hectare slice of floury sand with several freshwater springs and a perpetual supply of coconuts, the place feels like something out of a storybook or a dream.

Our hosts on Northeast Caye are the Lomonts, a French-American-Belizean family that has resided at Glover’s since the Nixon era. Like some modern-day clan of Swiss Robinsons, they dwell on the edge of nowhere, operating a solar-powered eco-lodge that caters to extreme divers. The lodge is a family affair, with three generations involved in the business. Warren Lomont – age 15 and already a trophy winner in several game-fish tournaments – serves as both boat captain and fishing guide. Every evening, Warren wades out into the shallows near the dock to clean the day’s catch, and immediately, dozens of sharks gather around him for the offal. The boy tosses out fish heads and guts, and calls the sharks by name. He appears completely at ease even as the wraith-like shadows swarm about his ankles.

But Warren’s “pet” sharks aren’t the only ones hungry for fish. “The commercial fishermen are killing the reef,” says Warren’s grandmother, Marcia Jo Lomont. “The government should close the whole park to fishing.” The Lomont matriarch says she fears a nationwide collapse of the fishing industry and the crushing effect it would have on tourism. The Lomonts are so concerned about the effects of poaching and overfishing at Glover’s that the family recently decided to pay for the salary of an additional Fisheries ranger out of their own pockets.

Marcia Jo’s daughter, Becky, has spent almost her entire life at Glover’s, where she now homeschools Warren and her two girls. Becky says local and federal penalties imposed for poaching are so slight that they don’t act as a deterrent. “Nobody cares if they get caught,” she says. “The fines are like a fee to fish the park.”

Becky says she feels lucky to be raising her family so close to nature. But she admits to being apprehensive about the future at Glover’s. “Even if they do close it [the park] down, the fish won’t come back. Once they’re gone, they’re gone,” she says. “I think we need a lot of help.”

In the summer of 2006, American marine biologist Melanie McField went to Paris to speak on behalf of the Belizean petitioners at the annual UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting. A coordinator for the Smithsonian Institute’s Healthy Reef Initiative, McField now lives full-time in Belize with her family. In order to protect against overfishing, she estimates that at least 30 to 40 percent of the Belize Barrier Reef should be protected by the government as a no-take zone.

As for her trip to Paris and the petition to UNESCO: “I never felt it was taken seriously,” she says. “UNESCO is being overstretched by climate change. If you look at the implications of global warming, almost every World Heritage Site could qualify for endangered status.”

The co-author of the petition, Candy Gonzales, says the dilemma isn’t so simple. “We found out that only the government can request World Heritage Site status,” Gonzales says. In Belize, she says, the prime minister “wields power like a dictator” and the fishing lobbies hold sway.

To get the government’s side of the story, we head for Belize City to attend the kickoff for a PR campaign called The International Year of the Reef. We’ve been living Lord of the Flies-style on Glover’s for weeks. Now we’re shivering in an air-conditioned conference hall, surrounded by complimentary canapés and cocktails – all courtesy of the newly elected United Democratic Party (UDP).

The attitude is festive. A choir of Belizean children sings odes to the reef. Then a well-meaning but naïve documentary is shown. Afterwards the lights come on, and the audience is hit up for donations. It’s easy to see why nobody here wants to face the crisis: The reef is such a part of Belize’s identity that to admit it’s dying is almost unpatriotic.

After gorging on bread pudding, we corner Gaspar Vega, Belize’s brand-new Prime Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment. His handshake is solid, his smile unctuous. When he wants to look thoughtful, he purses his lips and squints. “We’re aware of the lack of resources faced by the Fisheries patrolmen,” he says smoothly, and promises the new administration will donate more funds. “But we have the right laws in place already,” Vega says, contradicting everybody we’ve talked to so far.

Vega claims his UDP – unlike its predecessor – is interested in additional protection from UNESCO. Then he purses and squints and says: “Of course, we’re not going to stop development. What we need is development in control. All we need is proper policing.”

The Belizean government’s behavior contrasts sharply with that of Ecuador, which recently worked to designate its Galapagos Islands as a World Heritage Site “In Danger.” Ecuador’s decision to request special status for the Galapagos was backed by the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), which hosts a research station in the park. A 2007 report by the CDF blamed the problems in the archipelago on increased tourism and exploitive fishing.

It’s been more than a year since the danger listing, and CDF Information Director Ivonne Guzman says that, if nothing else, awareness has definitely improved. “This ‘In Danger’ status was good because many of the stakeholders realized what was happening here and what needed to happen here,” she says. “At least this got things going in a different direction.”

Because most sharks are nocturnal, the Pew team lands the biggest predators at night. Dr. Ellen Pikitch works the measuring tape and deftly implants the monitoring tags while the rest of us try to hold on to the writhing sharks.

“In general, shark populations are very vulnerable to even minor predation,” says Australian marine biologist Dr. Damian Chapman as he lifts a four-foot shark into the boat. “That’s because of their traditionally low mortality rates,” he says, expertly straddling the shark by keeping a hand under each pectoral fin. Chapman is tall, with a perpetual five o’clock shadow and a pronounced Aussie accent. “Aside from humans,” he says, “sharks have almost no natural enemies.” Their top-of-the-food-chain status, Chapman says, has allowed them to evolve differently from other fish. Sharks can take decades to reach sexual maturity, and when they do reproduce, most species give live birth to a couple of pups at most, instead of scattering thousands of eggs. Then, too, sharks require healthy populations of fish on which to prey – which is becoming ever more of a problem.

Based on prior DNA testing of sharks from the region, Chapman believes the Glover’s population to be genetically unique. Ultimately, he attributes the health of shark populations here to the existence of the no-take zone and the heroic enforcement efforts of the rangers. Like so many others we’ve talked to, he believes Glover’s Atoll should be completely closed to commercial fishing.

“We’d like to see them make Glover’s the first official shark haven in the Caribbean,” Pikitch adds. “Just because populations have remained stable here so far, doesn’t mean they’ll continue that way. Given the fishing pressure on the reef, it could all turn around in a year or two if we’re not careful.”

The researchers’ boat is mounted with powerful searchlights in order to locate caught sharks as rapidly as possible. Sharks need to swim freely for their gills to function, so a hooked shark will soon suffocate. The goal is not to let more than a few hours go by in between deployment and checking of the longlines – in stark contrast to the poachers, who often let the lines stay out all night to minimize the work of clubbing sharks to death in the morning.

But tonight, despite the scientists’ best precautions, a small Caribbean reef shark has drowned on the line. “We’ll use its body for DNA analysis,” says Chapman, placing the shark’s body gently, almost reverently, under the gunnels. “We won’t let him go to waste. We can’t. Nowadays, he’s just too valuable.”

Jeremy Kryt and Jamie Ward are graduates of the Indiana University School of Journalism. Kryt, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is writing his first novel. Ward is a journalist in Atlanta.

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