Paradise Losing?

Like Belize’s grand atoll itself, the conservation of one of fly fishing’s premier destinations stands on the edge of an abyss.

Saltwater Fly Fishing  |  September/October 2006

The University of Belize marine research center is an outpost of inquiry tucked among the grape trees and pillow clouds of a place called Calabash Caye, roughly 30 miles east of the Belizean mainland. On a bright April morning, this compound of weathered clapboards on stilts is deserted except for a student castaway left to guard the property, along with two dogs hunkered in the shade of some low-lying palm fronds. Paws and forelegs plunged into the cooling sands, the island’s mascots seem prepared for a day spent mostly with their tongues wagging in the breeze.

Despite this idyllic lull, there is research afoot here on Turneffe Atoll. Two hundred yards down the beach, visiting U.S. biologist Aaron Adams of Mote Marine Lab is preparing for his first seine sampling of the day. He has a boat and captain on loan from nearby Turneffe Flats Lodge, and with the vessel firmly at anchor, Adams slips on a pair of battered wading booties and slides overboard, eager to start pulling his net through paradise.

In addition to holding a Ph.D. in marine science, Adams is also an avid saltwater fly fisherman. In fact, he has probably caught more bonefish and permit than anyone alive—albeit most of them happen to be about an inch long. Here he is looking specifically for juvenile bonefish, a species whose ways are still as mysterious to science as they are celebrated by anglers. Until about 10 years ago, for example, it was thought there were only a few species of bonefish worldwide. The current number is nine and counting, and yet no one even knows where Caribbean bonefish spawn or where the juveniles are reared after drifting as larvae in the open ocean for months. In addition to helping solve these riddles, Adams’s research also has local implications.

Despite being the largest and most biologically diverse coral atoll in the western hemisphere, despite being a crowning jewel in the second largest coral reef system in the world, despite its importance to Belize’s angling, diving, and ecotourism industries, Turneffe Atoll lacks any comprehensive protection of its myriad natural wonders. And, of course, the first step in any conservation effort is to gather scientific data. In this case on everything from Turneffe’s faltering lobster and conch fisheries to the critical habitats of its prized game fishes.

Alas, were it that easy. During four trips in the last five years, having sampled more than 60 sites on an island that literally teems with adult bonefish, Adams has yet to trap even one juvenile. It has been a frustrating process of elimination: several hundred net pulls through a score of different habitat types, from windward mangroves to leeward beaches, from wending creeks to grassy flats.

“We have to know which habitats are critical to these economically viable species so that we know which battles to pick,” says Adams. This time, the target is a windward sandy beach just down the shoreline from the university’s remote research center.

Notwithstanding Turneffe’s paradisiacal setting, pulling a seine is indeed hard work, a little like dragging a string through molasses as the sieve’s tiny openings quickly bog with grass, water, and a menagerie of Lilliputian sea life: a tiny mojarra, the unfortunately named slippery dick, a small schoolmaster snapper, several baby permit, baby palometas, baby barracudas, and sundry egg cases. Picking through the jungle of grass and hapless sea life, Adams holds up each of the incidental little pre-schoolers for all to see, calling out its common name before flipping it behind his back into the gently lapping surf.

The first two pulls come up negative for bones. But on the third landing, just as the net heaves ashore and Adams starts weeding through the tangled grasses, he shouts, “Bonefish! Ha! We’ve got a bonefish!”

And then he finds another, and another. Throughout the week, he’ll sample up to a dozen very similar habitats across the atoll, netting a total of 40 juveniles and even a precious few bonefish larvae—another first on Turneffe. Each of the productive locations is a windward sandy beach, each blessed with an onshore breeze across postcard-white sands. Each a lovely spot for development.

LYING AT ITS closest point 20 miles east of Belize City, the Turneffe Islands complex is not so much an island as it is a lake in the middle of the ocean. With a central lagoon that averages only ten feet deep, this 300-square-mile oval labyrinth of mangroves, sea grasses, backreef flats, and more than 200 palm-studded cayes is encircled by a vibrant coral ring that drops precipitously into several thousand feet of neon blue water.

Other than a few diving and fishing operations and the local lobstermen and conchers, even today there is not much of a resident population on the atoll, less than 300 people at any given time. And although indigenous Mayans maintained conching settlements here as early as 400 A.D., the atoll’s isolation from the mainland has historically protected it from the sullying hands of human enterprise. But that is changing.

Once almost entirely owned by the government of Belize, in the past decade there has been a land grab in the atoll system as the government divests itself of atoll holdings. In an area where it is still rare to see a human dwelling, more than 90 sites have been designated as “developable,” ironically by conservationists who hope to direct future impacts away from the most sensitive areas, such as backreef islands, the coral rim, and sprawling flats. Nonetheless, there seems to be little control over how that development will proceed.

Already a number of malathion-spraying “day resorts” for cruise ships have popped up on the islands between Belize City and the atoll, harbingers, perhaps, of things to come farther east. Disastrous large-scale dredging projects, imminent over-the-water construction, and clear-cutting of sensitive cayes, islands, and even habitat for endangered species all have a recent precedent in the atoll system. Other than a prohibition against selling bonefish at market, there are no protections for Belize’s primary flats species. “You can net ’em, spearfish, or use dynamite if you wanted to,” says Craig Hayes, co-owner of Turneffe Flats Lodge. Some fear that as the atoll’s food fishes are depleted due to lack of enforcement, the pressure will turn toward game fishes.

Even though the atoll is still one of Belize’s largest producers of lobster, there are more pots on the water now than 20 years ago, but they account for fewer lobsters, anecdotally, at least. “Getting data is next to impossible,” says Hayes. According to bonefish researcher Adams’s observations, the conch populations are being severely impacted by harvest of pre-spawn conch. In a habitat mosaic as isolated and self-contained as Turneffe Atoll, the fate of the lobster, conch, bonefish, and permit are as intertwined as that of the mangrove roots with the sea grasses, and the silt-holding grasses with the surrounding coral’s need for clear, crystalline ocean water. It is, as the Mayans knew, all connected.


BACK IN THE LATE 1970s, Craig Hayes was a family doctor from Deadwood, South Dakota, with a penchant for knocking off the frostbite in the tropics of Belize. Today, at age 56, he is retired from medicine and occupied full-time with his majority ownership of Turneffe Flats Lodge, which he co-founded in 1981. Occasionally, he still mans the bow of one of the lodge’s Dolphin skiffs, in this case to help train a new guide as he scans for permit along a crescent of beach called Ropewalk Caye, also known as Bull Bay.

On shore, a string of gaily painted bungalows lines the pristine beach under a canopy of sensuously curving palm trees. It’s a relatively low-impact development, considering that it is currently a ghost town. But it has the look of a failed project ready for an investor with deeper pockets and more marketing savvy. And it suggests at least one example of a cash-addled push to monetize Turneffe’s unspoiled beauty.

“The whole thing was built before anyone even knew who owned the land,” says Hayes. “When it was done, the buyer found out that he actually owned the land adjacent to it.” More disturbing is the fact that the deal was linked to a Belizean government fisheries minister, whom earlier this year the Belize City media accused of fraud in knowingly selling the wrong property.

Conservationists in the region believe it is indicative of a pattern of locals, especially government officials, getting titles to atoll property only with intentions of flipping the land to the highest bidder. And even in issues of clear title, says Hayes, a homesteading mentality prevails. “The first thing they do to improve the land is strip it to cut down on the bugs, let in the breeze, and create views.” In 2004 and ’05, the same minister was ordered to stop clear cutting a 200-yard swath of mangroves on Cockroach Bay, which has since been declared critical nesting habitat for the endangered American saltwater crocodile, whose Caribbean stronghold is Turneffe Atoll.

Hayes concedes that he does not expect to have an entire Belizean paradise to himself. “There is room for more development, but if it’s haphazard, the habitat will be destroyed in the process. It’s going to diminish the quality of the sport fishery and the economic value that Turneffe has to Belize.”

“Belize has always been a conservation-minded country, but the real jewel of Belize, Turneffe Atoll, has been left out of all conservation efforts to date. That needs to be rectified…”

In an effort to preserve his own future on Turneffe, Hayes has been as involved as anyone in local conservation efforts. In 2002 he formed the nonprofit Friends of Turneffe Atoll (FTA) for the purpose of advancing conservation protections and sustainable development policies. FTA takes no administrative costs so that 100 percent of the funds go toward conservation, education, and research, such as Adams’s bonefish sampling.

Turneffe Flats Lodge was also a charter member of Patagonia’s “One Percent for the Planet” campaign, through which the lodge donates one percent of its gross revenue to Turneffe conservation. Hayes was instrumental in bringing the mangrove-clearing incident at Cockroach Bay to the attention of environmental regulators, and he has been active in pursuing the goals of Belize’s once-ambitious Coastal Zone Management Authority, a government-mandated planning initiative charged with developing a management plan for all of coastal Belize. Created in the early 1990s, the authority was divided into nine coastal zones, each represented by stakeholders ranging from lodge operators to government agencies and commercial fishermen.

Hayes chaired the group for his region—called the Turneffe Islands Coastal Advisory Committee (TICAC)—which in 2003 did produce a detailed planning document with an emphasis on sustainable development. TICAC, in fact, was the first zone to complete its plan. Today, the document is gathering dust in the Belize City offices of one of Hayes’s co-champions for Turneffe conservation, marine biologist Dr. Melanie McField of the World Wildlife Fund.

“The document was by the book. We showed them exactly how to do it,” says McField, “All the work was done. Then the [management authority] lost most of its funding, and there hasn’t been the political will to keep it going. It’s a shell of what it was.” Despite several e-mails and a telephone conversation with his secretary, Belize’s chief environmental officer, Mr. Ismael Fabro, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

But in any case, it seems certain that the need for vision at Turneffe is more acute than ever. McField, who holds a doctorate in marine science and has more than 16 years’ experience in the region, says that when WWF produced its own evaluation of conservation priorities for the Mesoamerican reef region, which includes marine resources in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras, the conservation value of Turneffe Atoll was “of the highest priority.” Turneffe, she says, has been decidedly underrepresented in the conservation of Belize’s coastal treasures. Nearby Glovers Atoll, by contrast, has been a marine reserve since the mid-1990s and is patrolled by rangers. Yet Turneffe is far larger and has greater biodiversity because of its terrestrial mass. “We had a friendlier government back when Glovers was protected, and the anti-environmental movement in Belize is stronger today,” says McField. “Now you have opposition from developers, commercial fishermen, and the general attitude of the politicians is to get all the revenue we can out of these places.”

Currently, Turneffe has only two small marine protected areas. They are not patrolled, although there is an ongoing effort through the University of Belize to fund rangers for both locations. One of them, a popular dive site known as the Elbow, was the first place in the world that researchers observed permit spawning behavior. Thanks to research at Turneffe Atoll, we now know that permit spawn on reef promontories around the full moon. According to Hayes and McField, that same reef point was damaged by silt loads from a dredging and beach renourishment project in 2003.

On the terrestrial front, although officials have designated the saltwater crocs’ nesting habitat at Cockroach Bay a protected area, it is not actively managed, and the critical beachfront appears to be diminishing. McField, Hayes, and others believe that someone may be pilfering sand from the nesting area and literally moving it by wheelbarrow loads to a nearby beach. There is also a national Mangrove Protection Act in Belize, but conservationists say it is largely ignored on the remote wilds of Turneffe, even though the atoll boasts as much as a quarter of Belize’s coastal mangroves.

The long-range vision of the TICAC management plan was to establish Turneffe as a UNESCO International Biosphere, a status enjoyed by Mexico’s Chinchorro Atoll to the north. However, that effort has made little headway. “I think there was too much focus on the biosphere concept,” says McField. “We need to establish it as a nationally protected area first, the way Chinchorro was, and then talk about making it a biosphere.”

But the biosphere concept still greatly appeals to Hayes for its emphasis on multiple uses, sustainability, and research. “Belize has always been a conservation-minded country, but the real jewel of Belize, Turneffe Atoll, has been left out of all conservation efforts to date. That needs to be rectified with an eye not toward stopping development but toward establishing parameters for sustainable development, tourism, and commercial fishing,” he says. “This is not just an altruistic thing for me. The survival of my business depends on the health of the environment.”

DAWN PATROL AT Turneffe Flats lodge brings a new sun over the western Caribbean and a sickle-shaped fin slicing across the backreef flats.

“Permit,” I whisper, satisfied to have at least been the first to sight a fish I don’t intend to cast to, content to man the camera and give Adams the fleeting shot. Besides, it was he who had tipped me off the night before that there would be permit moving through a cut in the reef by dawn. First one gliding in on the sunrise, and then another. Predictably, both spook in the shin-deep water after several casts. Confident that there won’t be another arriving any time soon, we head back to the lodge, me to prepare for a day of bonefishing and Adams for a day of dragging his seine.

Not coincidentally, the tidal wildness that makes Turneffe Atoll so attractive to fly anglers is also what lures researchers. Constantly bathed in clean ocean water, lush and isolated, the atoll is a perfect laboratory. “Doing research here is a little like being a kid in a candy shop but only having a nickel to spend,” says Adams, who was recently appointed director of operations and research for the nonprofit Bonefish and Tarpon Unlimited.

By the end of his week, he had netted 40 juveniles and seven larvae, marking a major step forward in his bonefish research but only a fraction of the road ahead. For instance, beyond his efforts to help build the case for protecting Turneffe Atoll, Adams’s research throughout the Caribbean has more far-reaching ramifications. Bonefish live up to 20 years; thus there is a substantial lag time between destroying juvenile habitat and the loss of that year class in the adult population. When we destroy the juvenile’s habitat, we might not know the damage we are doing to adult populations for 10 years. “We could already be in that ten-years-too-late phase in parts of Florida,” says Adams.

Bonefish are also highly transportable as larvae, which look like nothing more than a sling of snot with eyes. Their larval stage lasts roughly 40 to 70 days, therefore the Gulf of Mexico’s Loop Current, which moves water from central America to the Florida Straits, makes it possible that bonefish spawned in the deeper Caribbean could be integral to bonefish stocks in the U.S. Furthermore, most of the juvenile specimens that Adams has netted are not the species of bonefish most often caught by flats anglers. The species is still a puzzle without all its pieces, which is why every opportunity for research is critical.

But that moment could be slipping away at Turneffe. “Someone will buy a key here, bulldoze the trees, and the next hurricane the key is gone. What if juvenile bonefish habitat is off of small, backreef keys?” asks Adams.

To those chasing protection for the atoll, the irony is that this is even an issue in a country with such a progressive record on the environment. Belize has more protected area per capita than Costa Rica, the poster nation for tropical conservation. According to the Belize Embassy in Washington, 93 percent of Belize is still under forest cover. Forty-two percent of its mainland has some sort of protected status, and there are almost two dozen marine protected areas. The story of Turneffe Atoll is not yet so much a tragedy as it is a story of opportunity knocking at the door, waiting for an answer. “Turneffe is not on the downslope yet,” says Adams,” but it definitely is on the precipice.” ✦