Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve

We're supporting the development of Belize's newest marine reserve through conservation science and ecotourism.

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Overview

An aerial image of marine habitats in Turneffe Atoll. © Eric Ramos

Belize's Turneffe Atoll is the largest and most biologically diverse coral atoll in the Western Hemisphere. Located 25 miles east of Belize City, Turneffe is surrounded by deep oceanic waters that support an outstanding diversity of marine life. It is a part of the broader Mesoamerican Reef ecosystem, which encompasses the second longest barrier reef on Earth stretching more 1,000 kilometers from Mexico to Honduras. Its mangrove forests, wetlands, seagrass beds, lagoons, and sandy beaches provide habitat for more than 500 fish species, 65 stony corals, sea turtles, manatees, dolphins, seabirds, and other wildlife. They also sustain human livelihoods throughout the region through fisheries and tourism.

For more than 20 years Oceanic Society has been working with local and international partners to study marine species and habitats in Turneffe Atoll and to advocate for its protection. Our scientific research, ecotourism programs, and advocacy helped lead to the establishment of the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve in late 2012. Now our focus is on assuring that the reserve is successful in protecting this globally important marine habitat into the future.

Threats

Turneffe Atoll was declared a marine reserve in 2012, yet much work remains to make the reserve operational and assure its preservation over the long term. Our greatest concern is the need for improved knowledge of key habitats used by threatened megafauna including dolphins, sea turtles, manatees, and other species, so that these areas can be adequately protected. Current threats to marine species and habitats at Turneffe include ship traffic, pollution, fisheries, development, climate change, and tourism activities.

How We Are Helping

Oceanic Society's Blackbird Caye Field Station. © Eric Ramos

Through the Oceanic Society Field Station at Blackbird Caye, we have had a consistent presence in Turneffe Atoll since 2001 and have placed 12 acres of sensitive habitat under permanent protection. The field station serves as a base for undertaking scientific research that is needed for conservation efforts, as well as building international awareness and local support for Turneffe's conservation through our ecotourism and volunteer programs.

With help from international volunteers, our research has helped to shed light on the presence, abundance, distribution, and ecology of bottlenose dolphins, sea turtles, American crocodiles, Antillean manatees, and birds such as the least tern, roseate tern, and white-crowned pigeon. We have also identified and monitored important and sensitive habitats including coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove forests. At the same time our volunteer and ecotourism programs have helped to validate Turneffe's viability as a sustainable tourism destination.

In late 2012 Turneffe Atoll was declared a marine reserve, laying important legal groundwork for its long-term protection. Yet this declaration was just the beginning of a long-term process to fully define and manage the reserve, and much work remains to be done. Our current focus at Turneffe is:

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