The Demise of Belize’s Bird Island and Efforts to Save it

The island’s mangroves, which anchor sand and sediment in place along coastlines and island shores, need to be restored right away.

A battle is being waged over mangroves on Belize’s Ambergris Caye where the island nation’s most popular tourist destination, the town of San Pedro is located. On one side stand small business owners who depend on ecotourism. These folks see the value of mangrove forests, and their livelihoods depend on them. They understand mangroves are a vital part of marine ecology. They know that to drift in a boat along the edge of a mangrove forest at sunrise is an immersion in beauty. Shades of blue, shimmering green, and rich brown hues all awash with an orange-yellow glow. Snorkeling along the edge of submerged root tangles that extend deep into mysterious shadows reveals a secret world of mangrove oysters and sponges glued to algae-covered roots, snails of all shapes and colors clinging to them. Shrimp effortlessly amble about or gracefully glide through the water. A diverse array of fish, small and silvery, sparkle and glisten as they reflect thin rays of sun light while swimming in choreographed schools safe from predators patrolling the edge of the forest.

Mangroves, which anchor sand and sediment in place along coastlines and island shores, are a vital part of marine ecology. Many marine species only exist because of mangrove forests, spending their lives in root tangles or hidden in leaves among branches above high tide. Photo by Vincent Parsons.

Frigatebirds nesting in a mangrove in Belize. ​Photo by Bernard DUPONT.

Snorkeling along the edge of submerged root tangles that extend deep into mysterious shadows reveals a secret world of mangrove oysters and sponges glued to algae-covered roots. ​Photo by Eric Heupel.

On the other side stand those who destroy mangrove forests to build resorts, hotels, and houses. They want white sand beaches with unencumbered views of turquoise blue oceans. In their view, mangroves are ugly and smelly and of no commercial value. Clearing these forests is seen as a way to produce farmland and provide land for development. Their view doesn’t take into account that mangrove forests are biodiverse ecosystems teeming with life. Many marine species only exist because of mangrove forests, spending their lives in root tangles or hidden in leaves among branches above high tide. Others, especially fish, depend on them for nurseries during early stages of life.

Various versions of this battle have been playing out in many parts of the world where mangrove forests are found — north and south of the equator in the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.

In Belize, weak environmental laws and politics have encouraged the demise of mangroves. From 2010 to 2018, Belize has lost 47 percent of its coastal mangroves. Now, only 48,000 hectares remain. Ambergris Caye, for instance, shrank by 84 hectares from 2001 to 2015.

In late June 2021, I had the opportunity to visit the Tobacco Caye Marine Station off the coast of Belize. The station managers, Zara Eastup and James Troughton, provided a wonderful tour of South Water Caye Marine Reserve (SWCMR) and some of its islands. At nearly 48,000 hectares, this reserve is one of 18 marine protected areas and the largest managed by the Belize Fisheries Department. It is one of the most biodiverse places in the Caribbean. Nearly 77 hectares, which is 0.16 percent of the reserve, is a designated preservation zone meaning fishing, diving, and any activities causing disturbance are not allowed. We visited one of the many small mangrove-covered islands, part of a cluster of islands forming Tobacco Range. We snorkeled along a dense wall of red mangrove roots where over 140 species thrive, while manatees fed on turtle and manatee grass in the adjacent shallows.

I was especially excited to see SWCMR’s Bird Island (also known as Man-O-War Caye), a designated bird sanctuary within the preservation zone as it is one of 10 nesting sites in the Caribbean for magnificent frigatebirds. Brown boobies, brown pelicans, and double-breasted cormorants nest there as well. This is an economically important ecotourism site for local tour guides. I’ve seen old photos of this island with clouds of frigatebirds circling above. What I saw in June, however, was shocking. The island had dissolved into the ocean, all that remained were dead white mangrove trees and shrubs protruding from the water. A few frigatebirds and brown boobies were nesting on lifeless branches of the few plants that were still anchored to the soil but were soon destined to collapse into the sea.

Mangroves anchor sand and sediment in place along coastlines and island shores. They retain sediments protecting coral reefs from being buried under a blanket of silt, while at the same time buffering land from hurricanes, monsoons, and tsunamis. Without mangroves, coastlines retreat and islands dissolve into the ocean and that’s exactly what had happened to Bird Island.

Bird Island in 2021, a designated bird sanctuary that is one of 10 nesting sites in the Caribbean for frigatebirds, has dissolved into the ocean. All that remains are dead white mangrove trees and shrubs protruding from the water. Photo by James Krupa.​

Bird Island in 2019. From 2010 to 2018, Belize has lost 47 percent of its coastal mangroves. Photo courtesy of Tobacco Caye Marine Station.

Bird Island in 2010 with clouds of frigatebirds circling above. Other bird species, including brown boobies, brown pelicans, and double-breasted cormorants used to nest on the island as well. Photo by Kerri Allen.

In 2006, two high-end resorts began construction west of Bird Island on both Coco Plum Island and Thatch Caye. Most of the mangroves along these islands were cleared and seawalls were constructed along the western shores of these islands to prevent erosion. Seagrass beds north and south of Bird Island were dredged to deposit sand on these islands’ shores and doing so created a channel around the island. Roots of red mangroves once able to hold Bird Island’s shoreline in place were overwhelmed by the speed with which the channel’s water eroded its sandy shores. They couldn’t hold on to the land. And as mangroves disappeared the island dissolved as well.

In 2013, the Belize’s Environmental Compliance Plan (ECP), written up by the country’s geology and petroleum department, provided permits to develop and clear 0.77 hectares for a private residence along the southern point of Tobacco Range, an island immediately east of Bird Island. Permits were granted to dredge material as fill for the development. Tobacco Range falls within the marine reserve and should have had maximum protection. Alarmed by the news, the Stann Creek Fishermen Association reported dredging activity to government officials. The Belize Fisheries Department, responsible for protecting the reserve, had never given any company permit to dredge but the Department of Natural Resources had.

In 2014, suddenly, without notice, the Fisheries Department changed Tobacco Range protection designation and surrounding waters from being a conservation zone to a general use zone without consulting local residents. The courts stopped the dredging for a single day before it resumed. Government agencies were silent. Politicians were silent. That’s because greed, wealth, and political influence won out, says James Troughton, a marine scientists with the Tobacco Caye Marine Station, a marine-based research and education center based in Belize. Recently, dredging at Tobacco Range has been halted. The reason for the pause is unclear, but it’s likely due to growing criticism of the activity. It remains to be seen if this is a permanent halt.

It is not too late to save Bird Island. But action must be taken now. This includes the following. First, dredging in the reserve must stop permanently. A seawall made of concrete blocks, conch shells, sandbags, and other large solid objects must encircle Bird Island to prevent further erosion and stabilizing what is left of the island. Once stabilized, sand from nearby sources such as the mouth of North Stann Creek River can be deposited inside the sea wall. The river’s mouth periodically silts up because of longshore drift and requires dredging to allow boat traffic. Once completed, red, black, and white mangroves trees/plants must be replanted. These trees/plants will further stabilize the island by naturally accumulating more sand and sediment. Bird Island would likely respond by growing larger than it was before 2007 supporting a bird breeding colony as large or larger than before. Ultimately the populations of frigatebirds, brown boobies, and other species in the South Water Caye Marine Reserve could grow and thrive.

With action, tourists will again witness clouds of frigatebirds and brown boobies circling over the island. But this will require that Tobacco Range and all waters surrounding it, extending to both Coco Plum Island and Thatch Caye, be maintained as a conservation zone with government agencies providing maximum protection of mangrove forests and seagrass beds with no dredging permitted other than the mouth of North Stann Creek River.

I hope Bird Island can be saved. Moreover, I hope we can learn mangrove ecosystems should not be destroyed by those who profit from nature’s wonders yet have no regard for the environment. Those who caused the damage should be financially responsible for the costs of restoration. A healthy environment and vibrant local economy depend on mangrove forests.

For more information on mangrove ecology visit Mangrove Action Project. Tobacco Caye Marine Station started a petition to the Belize Fisheries Department asking that a seawall be built around Bird Island. Please consider signing it.

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