At the landscape level, we map ecosystem types and monitor fresh and marine water quality. At the ecosystem level, we monitor coral reef health, extent of mangroves and seagrass beds and health of tropical broadleaf forest and pine savannah. We monitor commercially important local fisheries, specifically those for conch, lobster, sea cucumber and fish (snappers and groupers). Endangered species monitored include the critically endangered hicatee turtle (Central American river turtle, Dermatemys mawii) and yellow-headed parrot (Amazona oratrix). In terms of threats, we monitor water quality, hunting, fishing pressure, climatic factors and invasive lionfish.
In addition to these on-going monitoring programs, we conduct research projects to answer questions on specific aspects of the local environment, often in partnership with visiting researchers and students.
Our research informs management and our management informs research. In other words, we apply an adaptive management approach. For example, in 2012 we discovered that the abundance of conch, lobster and reef fish had been declining in some of the replenishment zones (no-take zones) of the Port Honduras Marine Reserve since 2010. This was consistent with reports from our local Managed Access fishers that illegal foreign fishers were increasingly targeting these zones at night to evade our rangers. As a result, we have increased nighttime patrols and will monitor these zones more closely to see if the species recover.
The other major purpose of research and monitoring is to equip our stakeholders with the evidence they need to make informed decisions. For example, we have been able to show local fishers and the Fisheries Department that existing replenishment zones, which cover only 5% of the marine reserve, may not be large enough to effectively protect conch and lobster spawning and nursery grounds. We are working with these stakeholders to create a solution, which will likely include expanding replenishment zones and increasing participatory enforcement. Furthermore, our research into the hicatee turtle is assisting the Government of Belize to set more stringent hunting regulations in an effort to save this critically endangered species.
To ensure that Belizean capacity in scientific research continues to grow, we train young people from the local community in SCUBA diving and research techniques and employ them to collect data. Rigorous training and quality control ensure that data from our Community Researchers are reliable and make an important contribution to our science.