Belize’s Coral Reefs: Fostering Sustainable Practices through Co-Management

Latest update July 18, 2019 Started on October 12, 2018

Follow along on our journey to bring marine scientists, natural resource managers and fisherfolk together to preserve Belize's coral reef ecosystems!

We combine SCUBA diving, interviews of key stakeholders, and educational programming to integrate science into decision-making practices for sustainability.

October 12, 2018
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In The Field

At the end of May, I set out with TIDE’s Enforcement team to see if we could use the Trident to search for illegal fish traps in the Port Honduras Marine Reserve (PHMR). TIDE is a co-manager of the PHMR, along with the Belize Fisheries Department, meaning both are responsible for ensuring all users of the reserve abide by the law. TIDE’s Enforcement team consists of the Marine Manager, Mr. Ryan Moore, and the Rangers. The Rangers are boat captains trained in enforcing the laws of the marine reserve, including arresting people who violate those laws. One of the biggest challenges involved in marine reserve law enforcement is maximizing available resources (like money, personnel, and equipment). TIDE Rangers combat this issue by monitoring their fuel usage, planning patrols at night (when illegal fishing activities are more frequent), and exploring emerging technologies. The Sofar Trident ROV is one such technology the TIDE Rangers were most excited to test out because it could help them find illegal fish traps deployed in the reserve.

Since the Port Honduras Marine Reserve was implemented in 2000, the use of fish traps has been illegal within the reserve. However, several fishers are still using them and getting away with it because the Rangers have difficulty finding the traps once they see someone using them. Rangers often encounter someone deploying a trap, but then the person immediately drops the trap underwater and drives away. Without the evidence of the trap AND the person using the trap, the Rangers are unable to arrest them. That’s where the Sofar Trident comes in: the Rangers think they could use this tool to find fish traps underwater once they spot a fisher using them.

So, in May, we brought the Sofar Trident to the PHMR to search for illegal fish traps. We visited several locations within the reserve, often anchoring next to a small caye and taking turns driving the Trident. However, the visibility was only several inches due to an overnight storm, so in order to see anything, we needed to drive the Trident very close to the bottom. Because of this, seagrass got stuck in the propellers, and even mud got into the sides (where the black rubbery part is). Thankfully, we were able to lightly tug on the tether to bring the Trident back to the boat and I could remove the black sides of the Trident to rinse out the mud. Despite these challenges, our spirits remained high because we knew that weather conditions often determine the success of field excursions, and we weren’t going to let some bad visibility get us down.

We ended the day joking about sea turtles we may or may not have seen, brainstorming additional uses of the Sofar Trident, and with me sharing tips with TIDE’s Enforcement team how they could get one of their own. Who knows, maybe they’ll start an OpenExplorer Expedition of their own for us all to follow along?!

I’ll leave you with several photos and a video from our expedition, credited to Mr. Ryan Moore at TIDE. Enjoy!

Read more about TIDE here:

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In early May, I had the opportunity to help the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) Belize with their conch monitoring surveys of the Port Honduras Marine Reserve (PHMR), both by SCUBA diving and by using the Sofar Trident ROV! This was the Trident’s second time in salt water, and I’m happy to report that the visibility of the water was much better than the first time.

TIDE is one of the co-managers of the PHMR and a local partner for my expedition. We spent a whole week staying overnight at the Payne’s Creek National Park (without cell/internet service!) and SCUBA diving in sea grass beds in search of conch. During my surface intervals, I tested out the Sofar Trident ROV!

My main objectives for this trip were to: 1) Teach the TIDE research and monitoring team how to operate the Trident, 2) Explore the potential to use the Trident to monitor underwater environments alongside research divers, and 3) Brainstorm additional uses for the Trident, especially for an organization like TIDE.

Check out the video to see how it went!

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Great video! Thanks for the update Catie.

Thank you for your patience between posts as I’ve been busy coordinating a field team and traveling to 10 communities in southern Belize to interview fishers about their fishing experiences. Stay tuned for future posts about that process. As my data collection is wrapping up, I’ve found some time to catch you up on the happenings with the Trident ROV!

At the end of April, I took the Sofar Trident on her maiden voyage in salt water in Punta Gorda, Belize! My field assistants and staff at TIDE (one of my partner organizations) were excited to test out the controls and to see an underwater drone at work. We launched the drone right off of TIDE’s dock, conveniently located across the street from the office.

We controlled the Trident by using an app on my tablet, the camera on the drone (which we could view in real-time on the tablet), and by spotting the ROV in the water. One big issue was the murkiness of the water, so it made seeing the footage on the tablet, and the location of the drone, very difficult. Nevertheless, everyone was excited about the potential of the Trident and we began brainstorming uses for it.

In May, I brought the Trident on two different trips to the Port Honduras Marine Reserve with TIDE staff. One trip was to monitor conch populations with the Research and Monitoring team, and the other was to look for illegal fish traps with TIDE’s Rangers and Enforcement team. I had a lot of fun teaching the TIDE staff about this more cost-effective and accessible underwater monitoring technology. They might even start their own Open Explorer Expedition. Video posts of those experiences are forthcoming!

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Great! Can't wait to see the videos.

Hello from Punta Gorda, Belize! I arrived here last week with my ROV, SCUBA gear and survey equipment in my luggage (wow!) after spending a few days in Belize City and Belmopan to get my permits in check. For this post, I’d like to share with you a little more about the country of Belize and why I’m doing my dissertation research here.

Belize is in Central America, and is home to the second longest barrier coral reef in the world – the Belize Barrier Reef – which spans over 300 kilometers. Seven protected areas within the BBR have been a part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. The Belize Barrier Reef is part of the larger Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which traces the coasts of Belize, Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. The reef system incorporates the diverse marine habitats of mangroves, seagrass beds, fringing and patch coral reefs, and several offshore atolls. Because of this rich biodiversity, ecotourism and fishing are two of the most prevalent livelihood strategies among Belizeans.

Belize is a pioneer for interdisciplinary conservation work (what I do) because many different organizations – at the governmental, community, and international levels – are invested in preserving Belize’s natural resources and supporting economic development. Beginning in the early 1980s, the first marine reserves – where fishing is restricted in select areas – emerged in Belize, demonstrating a commitment to conservation. Since then, the country has paired up fishing zones next to the reserves and allowed licensed fishers to fish in 1-2 of those zones instead of the whole ocean. This new set of rules is known as Managed Access, and requires licensed fishers to report what they’re catching (species, number, how long they were at sea, etc.) in logbooks. The idea behind this new licensing process is that there will be less of a “race to fish.” And, there should be an increase in environmental stewardship among fishers because they’ll want to protect and patrol the areas where they go. Evaluating the efficacy of this program from social and ecological perspectives is a main objective of my dissertation research.

I’m in Belize for the next three months to collect socio-economic data from fishers in two of the Managed Access areas to evaluate the program’s impact on fisher’s livelihoods and perceptions. I’m working with the Belize Fisheries Department, the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE), and the Southern Environmental Association (SEA) for this project. I hope to combine the socio-economic data we collect with ecological data collected from my partners to provide holistic, science-based advice for sustaining fishers’ livelihoods while preserving marine resources.

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Greetings Open Explorer Community!

This week I took the OpenROV Trident for a test dive at my local pool! I can operate it by using the touch-screen commands on an app on my Android tablet, which communicates to the Trident and tether through the Trident’s unique Wi-Fi signal. After a few practice runs, and some confused looks from the lifeguards, I got the hang of operating the Trident. I’m looking forward to using it in the waters of Belize in about a month!

Check out the video below for more information about this experience. Also please bear with me, as I'm still a novice to video production. I hope to make more videos documenting this Expedition (with each one a little better than before)!


Happy New Year! I am delighted to share that this Open Explorer expedition has been chosen to be a part of the Science Exploration Education (SEE) Initiative! This program pairs expedition leaders (like me!) with an OpenROV Trident – or underwater drone – to help them explore various different marine ecosystems.

I will use my OpenROV Trident to supplement data collection that I’m planning on conducting along the Belize Barrier Reef underwater using SCUBA. Using either method, I will quantify lobster, conch, and fish species underwater. A main difference between SCUBA diving and operating the Trident, is that I can operate the Trident from the water’s surface!

Whether on a boat or a dockside, I’ll be able to obtain video and photograph data because it will be tethered to my Android tablet. This provides me with an exciting opportunity to collect underwater data in two ways and compare my results! I can also share the videos and photos taken with the Trident with my collaborators and the community members in Belize, contributing to increased awareness of coral reefs.

Follow along as I learn how to operate the OpenROV Trident – I’m hoping to take it to my local pool in the coming weeks to test it out!


Congratulations & can't wait to see how the Trident's first dive goes!

Thank you! I'm excited to try it out!


Hello followers! I thought I would provide a bit of background about who I am and what led me to pursue this expedition:
Growing up in Narragansett, Rhode Island, sparked within me a passion for the ocean, for I spent my summers playing in the shallow waters of the local beaches. This passion grew deeper when I developed an excitement for learning and interest in scientific inquiry from field trips to the coast with enthusiastic teachers. I became fascinated with the natural world – it was a mystery I wanted to understand. This was the driving force behind my decision to study biology at Connecticut College.

While at Conn, I was exposed to a variety of opportunities that pushed me beyond my comfort zone and sparked my passion for coral reef research. I spent a week snorkeling and conducting field research around South Water Caye, Belize, during a Tropical Biology course (photo 1: posing while snorkeling at sunrise, credit: Molly Conlin). I also became SCUBA certified, further motivated to explore the underwater world. After this, I spent four months on the island of Bonaire, in the Dutch Caribbean, during a field semester in Tropical Marine Ecology and Conservation (photo 2: ready for a scientific dive, credit: CIEE Bonaire).

Between Conn and graduate school, I spent several years working in marine conservation at the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) in Key Largo, Florida, and education at the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program in Mystic, Connecticut (photo 3: posed on Vieques, Puerto Rico with S’14, credit: Williams-Mystic). These experiences showed me firsthand that marine conservation efforts are most effective through collaborations between multiple interest groups.

Motivated by my desire to protect and conserve coral reef ecosystems, I decided to pursue my PhD in ecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My career goals focus on marine conservation science, especially addressing the gap between the scientific community and the public. Because I feel as though the scientific community cannot remain isolated from the people its research benefits most, I hope to use science to advise policymakers about the best management techniques for protecting tropical marine ecosystems.

This expedition is a component of my dissertation research, which I’ve designed to include social and ecological components of marine conservation. For effective conservation of marine resources, we need to integrate how and why humans use them, and incorporate their perspectives into management decisions. In another post, I will write more about why I’ve chosen to do this project in Belize specifically, and why Belize is a pioneer for this kind of interdisciplinary conservation work.

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Hi Catherine! It sounds amazing! Happy to follow your project and keep us updated!

Expedition Background

Overfishing of marine ecosystems threatens biodiversity and the viability of fisheries. Marine reserves are designed to mitigate these impacts by restricting fishing access in select locations, but poaching and lack of enforcement limit their broader success. Territorial User Rights for Fishing (TURFs) have emerged, assigning fishers rights to fish in designated areas in exchange for reporting their catch. In 2011, the first TURFs in the Caribbean were established by the Belize Fisheries Department (BFD) and incorporated the Port Honduras Marine Reserve (PHMR) and the Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve. Since June 2016, a nation-wide TURF system – known as Managed Access (MA) – was implemented, and seven additional MA areas were added to pre-existing reserves. This expedition corresponds to my early career grant, where I seek to quantify the efficacy of Belize’s MA program in restoring overfished stocks, biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, and improving fishers’ livelihoods. I will collaborate with the BFD and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to evaluate the efficacy of Belize’s MA program using the social-ecological systems (SES) framework. This expedition focuses on the Port Honduras Marine Reserve (PHMR), which is co-managed by the BFD and the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE). I will compare logbook catch data to long-term ecological monitoring of the PHMR to determine if catch data are reflected in the environment. I will also conduct a socio-economic survey of fishers who utilize PHMR for their livelihoods. The results of this project will assist natural resource managers with the best science-based decision-making practices for sustaining fishers’ livelihoods while preserving coral reef ecosystems.

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Dayna, it's great to hear we share a passion for Belize. I'd love to check out your documentary some time. Keep up the great work!

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