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Bonefish & Tarpon Trust Supports Local Opposition to Proposed Development of Cayo Rosario

Photo: Omar Arceo

Bonefish & Tarpon Trust is strongly in support of the flats fishing community and Belizean citizens in their opposition to the proposed Cayo Rosario development, and to the current construction-related activities at Cayo Rosario. The development plan for Cayo Rosario is ill-conceived, not appropriate for these habitats, and will damage the economically and culturally important flats fishery.

Cayo Rosario is privately owned, and lies within the Hol Chan Marine Reserve (HCMR). This area is part of HCMR to protect important flats fishing areas for the economic and cultural benefit of the surrounding communities. Thus, development may be permitted on the caye, but the surrounding waters and submerged bottom are part of “Conservation Zone IV” of the “General Use Zone” of the Reserve.

The flats fishery of Belize is world-renowned because of the diversity of the species that can be caught, including bonefish, tarpon, permit, snook and barracuda. Sport fishermen from around the world travel to Belize to fish the flats, providing an annual economic impact of more than $100 million Belize dollars. Cayo Rosario provides important habitat to the species that support this economically and culturally valuable fishery. In fact, the socio-economic importance of the flats fishery in northern Belize, that includes San Pedro Town, is approximately 1,226 direct jobs and annual economic impact of BZ$ 64.7 million. There are 120 guides that comprise the flats and recreational sectors that directly depend on the ecological integrity of Cayo Rosario. Collectively, the guides and their direct dependents have a total household size of 338 individuals.

The job of ‘flats fishing guide’ is frequently passed down through families for generations, and many of the lodges that host anglers are family-owned and operated. The flats fishery was deemed so important to the future of Belize that the legislature designated bonefish, tarpon, and permit ‘catch and release only’ to ensure the fishery stays healthy. Since bonefish, tarpon, and permit have high survival after being released, this is a sustainable fishery—as long as the flats habitats are protected.

Of chief concern for the flats fishery and marine environment surrounding the caye are the construction of overwater bungalows (OWB) that far exceed docks needed for the transfer of passengers and supplies. The proposed OWBs will negatively impact the flats habitat and fishery. The habitats surrounding Cayo Rosario are important fishing areas for the flats fishery and recreational reef fishery sectors. For the flats sector, the area provides a refuge, feeding and resting zone for bonefish, permit and tarpon. For the reef fishing sector, the area provides bait fish used in reef fishing. In addition, both fisheries catch crevalle jack in these areas.

The flats ecosystem depends upon open expanses of habitat. Placing the OWBs on the sand flats will disrupt habitat continuity, causing habitat fragmentation and decreasing habitat quality for flats species like bonefish and permit. The claim that the OWBs will be over shallow water, and therefore will not impact the flats fishery, shows the lack of understanding of the flats habitats by the developers. It is exactly these shallowest waters that are used by permit and bonefish and are targeted habitats by fishing guides and anglers. Indeed, the flat to the south of Cayo Rosario, where the OWBs are proposed, is an important permit habitat. Moreover, these habitats, as well as the mangroves surrounding Cayo Rosario, are part of the coastal habitat mosaic that HCMR is designed to protect.

Also of concern is the proposal to disrupt the flats to connect Cayo Rosario infrastructure to Ambergris Cay via trenching. This would also be detrimental to the flats.  Since BTT research has shown that bonefish have small home ranges, the loss and destruction of flats habitats around the island will certainly impact the local bonefish population. Allowing this to occur inside a protected marine reserve would also set a dangerous precedent for the rest of Belize.

Based on extensive ecological research and social science surveys, BTT has determined that habitat loss and degradation are the top threats to the economically and culturally important flats fishery. Indeed, at the National Flats Fishing Forum in Belize City in November 2014, the professional fishing guides of Belize also determined that habitat loss and degradation are the chief threats to the fishery. Construction of OWBs, therefore, are a direct threat to the health of the flats fishery.

Bonefish & Tarpon Trust is a science-based, non-profit, conservation organization dedicated to the conservation of the flats fishery and flats habitats throughout the Caribbean. BTT has been working with flats fishing guides, tour operators, fishing lodges, and others in Belize since 2003, to provide information that contributes to conservation. The science tells us that the proposed Cayo Rosario over water structures are bad for the flats habitats and the fishery. Our relationship with the fishing guides and tour operators solidifies our support of their opposition to this proposed development. BTT has been working with the fishing guides and lodges of Belize for 15 years, and will continue to help them protect their fishery for the future. The Cayo Rosario OWB proposal is a bad idea, and a threat to the fishery.