Far and away, the largest threat facing Turneffe Atoll is improper, destructive development. This largely takes the form of clearing low-lying mangrove swamps and then "creating" new land by dredging to fill these low areas.
This form of develop destoys the critically important mangrove swamps at Turneffe and then further destroys the sea grasses and back reef flats by dreding to fill these areas. Both mangrove destruction and dredging further degrade the entire marine ecosystem by damaging the coral reef and destroying critical fish habitat.
These matters have been directly addressed by a number Advisory Committees over the past two decades; however, permitting agencies in Belize have failed to recognize these efforts or follow their recommendations. More importantly, Belize's environmental laws are often circumvented or not adequately enforced.
During the developement of the Turneffe Atoll Management Plan for the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve between 2010 and 2012, recommendations from the Advisory Committees were reviewed and largely affirmed. The Turneffe Atoll Management Plan, which is the guideline for management of the Marine Reserve, mandates that these practices be avoided.
Turneffe Atoll Coastal Advisory Committee
In 2003, the Turneffe Atoll Coastal Advisory Committee (TACAC) arduously reviewed all potential development on the Turneffe Atoll. More than 90 locations were recommended for potential sustainable development on the Turneffe Atoll (see "Turneffe Development Guidelines"). TACAC felt strongly that certain development practices would be improper at Turneffe and they should not be permitted. These include the following:
1. Dredging of any sort
2. Over-the-water Development
3. Clearing or development on the small backreef cayes
Below are "Position Papers" developed by TACAC related to these issues.
Turneffe Atoll Coastal Advisory Committee (TACAC)
In 2009, TACAC recommended that Development Guidelines for the Turneffe Atoll prohibit all dredging at Turneffe. Geology and Petroleum feel that no such restriction should exist and that dredging at Turneffe should be decided on a “case-by-case basis”.
Protection of Turneffe’s environment, particularly the reef, the back reef flats and the sea grass beds is key to the survival of both commercial fishing and tourism, the two major economies at Turneffe. Dredging at Turneffe will have a negative impact on these habitats, and as such, an adverse effect on the economy of Turneffe.
Coral reefs are particularly sensitive and can be easily damaged by silt and runoff from dredging. The reef system at Turneffe has been under increased stress over the past few years due to coral bleaching from El Nino and damage from Hurricanes Mitch and Keith in 1998 and 2000. Additional man-made stress from dredging should be avoided.
It is TACAC ’s understanding that the attached photographs show a dredging project that was authorized as a small-scale dredging operation to restore beach eroded by recent hurricanes. Unfortunately, the effects of this project on the reef, back reef flats and sea grass beds are substantial and obvious.
In short, dredging conflicts with the two overriding goals of the Turneffe Island Development Guidelines, i.e. sustainable economic development and protection of the unique and fragile environment at Turneffe.
There may be isolated situations where minimal dredging is safe and warranted but permits for dredging, sand mining or filling should only be issued under the following rigid guidelines:
- No dredging, sand mining or filling shall be allowing within ½ mile of a reef.
- Dredging at Turneffe shall only be allowed if no detrimental effect to the reef, back reef flats or seagrass beds are caused.
- Dredging projects at Turneffe shall be limited to a maximum of 500 cubic yards.
- No dredging shall be approved within 1/2 mile of any previous dredging.
Other developmental techniques were also addressed by TACAC including Over-the-water development and developement of small backreef cayes.
Over The Water Developement at Turneffe
TACAC decided that over-the-water closed structures should not be allowed at Turneffe and the Department of Environment (DOE) was presented with the following recommendations.
The construction of over-water structures will be considered, by relevant agencies, on a case-by-case basis. However, in order to be considered, the following minimum requirements would have to be satisfied:
- Siting of structures will not affect navigation of vessels
- Structures will be sited in areas where coastal waters are shallow for a considerable distance
- Clean technologies (approved by DOE) will be utilized for liquid and sewage disposal
- Structures are not in close proximity to reef systems
- Structures will not affect general aesthetics of the area
- Structures are designed to withstand hurricane force winds.
The siting of structures over-the-water is inherently adverse to the aesthetics of Turneffe. The precedent set by allowing lodging quarters, restaurants and bars to be built over the water, is cause for concern. Most coastal villages, such as San Pedro, Caye Caulker and Placentia, have addressed this issue. With the exception of a few “grandfathered” dive shops and bars; this type of development is not permitted. The economy of Turneffe is absolutely dependent upon the natural setting - ignoring this fact could cause substantial long-term economic detriment.
Waste management concerns are more difficult with this type of development. Even though “clean technologies” may initially be required, any leaks, malfunctions etc., could cause immediate detrimental effects to the environment. Over-the-water construction would require significant on-going monitoring which may be beyond the scope of DOE or other monitoring agencies.
All development at Turneffe is exceptionally vulnerable to hurricanes. This is born out in that Turneffe has been hit by three hurricanes (Mitch, Keith & Iris) in the past five years. Over-the-water development is certainly more susceptible to hurricane damage. In recent years, Turneffe has experienced winds far in excess of 70 MPH, the present definition of hurricane force winds.
Protection of Turneffe’s environment, particularly the reef, the back reef flats and the sea grass beds is key to the survival of both commercial fishing and tourism, the two major economies at Turneffe. Over-the-water structures would have a negative impact on these habitats, and, as such, an adverse effect on the economy of Turneffe.
Over-the-water closed structures are strongly discouraged and will be considered by relevant permitting agencies only when the following requirements are met.
- Structures will not effect the navigation of vessels
- Structures may not be sited in environmentally sensitive areas such as back reef flats or sea grass beds.
- Structures may not be sited within 1 mile of any reef.
- Clean and proven technologies, approved by the DOE, must be in place for removing all waste, including liquid and sewage, to the shore for treatment and disposal.
- An on-going monitoring plan, including the financing thereof, must be in place and approved by DOE.
- Structures must be designed and warranted to withstand Category 4 Hurricane winds.
Development of Small Backreef Cayes
In the 1990’s, ninety-five sites on the Turneffe Atoll were evaluated and recommendations were made for their use. Recommendations were made for both primary and secondary use of these sites. Following substantial debate and input from all TACAC members, TACAC recommended that “conservation” was the most appropriate land use for a number of sites, and the Development Guidelines reflect these recommendations.
TACAC’s evaluation is that twenty sites are unique and/or special areas which should be protected. No secondary use is listed for these areas; however, Research and Education are suggested.
There was mention at the CZ Advisory Committee meeting that the conservation areas have a secondary use, and this was debated by TACAC as well. It is TACAC’s position that permitting agencies will logically look at either the primary or secondary use of a site as being legitimate. Therefore, a conservation site with a secondary use is not a conservation site at all.
The number of sites recommended for conservation is relatively small and a review of Turneffe's Development Guielines will help put it into perspective.