The Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus), a sub-species of the West indian manatee, is considered endangered (IUCN, 2015), and is protected under the Belize Wildlife Protection Act (No. 4 of 1981). Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary was established for its national and regional importance for maintaining the viability of Antillean manatees and is highlighted as particularly important for mating and calving (Auil, 2008). SACD activities are focused on maintaining and improving the viability of manatees in the CBWS.
Presently, the manatee population in CBWS is monitored through aerial surveys, boat-based surveys of identified aggregation areas (identified resting holes) and recordings of opportunistic sightings. SACD also responds to manatee stranding reports in the Corozal Bay area.
Commercial fish species
Despite being established as a non-extractive protected area, fishing within the Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (CBWS) has been identified as a traditional resource-use, practiced from generation to generation, generating an income for families, and providing an important protein source in stakeholder communities. SACD has been successfully lobbying for recognition of this activity within the National Protected Areas System Act, to ensure that traditional fishermen can continue to support their families from fishing, but recognizing the need to ensure that it is based on an effective sustainable use plan.
Local consultations suggest that commercial fish species in CBWS are threatened by unsustainable fishing, with the disappearance of the sawfish, and numbers of other species declining over the last 30 years. Local fish populations fluctuate within the Bay dependent on the changing physical parameters, which are affected by seasonal weather patterns.
The beach trap fishery has been identified as the most feasible way to survey local fish populations and has been monitored since 2011, with baseline results summarized in the SACD report “Planning for a Sustainable Fishery” (SACD, 2012). Continued monitoring provides information on seasonal fluctuations and trends, feeding into management decisions.
Water Quality in CBWS
Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary contains a significant portion of the largest estuarine system emptying onto the Meso-American reef. As a transitional zone between fresh and salt water, it has a wide variety of rapidly changing environments, both over space and time. SACD is implementing a comprehensive water quality monitoring programme – generating data on salinity, temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen and turbidity – to provide a baseline for monitoring of changes in the environment.
Bird Nesting Colonies
CBWS is home to coastal mangroves, littoral forest and the small mangrove cayes that provide important nesting and foraging habitats for wetland birds. The status of colonial nesting bird colonies, their size and nesting success, indicate Corozal Bay’s ability to support foraging of these species – the availability and quality of fish and/or invertebrates available in the surrounding landscape/seascape, and management activities to mitigate human impacts.
Key species nesting on the mangrove cayes of Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary are:
- Magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens)
- Brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis)
- Great egrets (Ardea alba)
- Reddish egrets (Egretta rufescens)
- Roseate spoonbills (Ajaia ajaja)
- White ibis (Eudocimus albus)
- Cormorants (Phalacrocorax )
Cayo Falso, a mangrove island to the west of Sarteneja, supports nesting grounds for the majority of the key species in CBWS. Immediately adjacent to the Sanctuary, protected islands in Shipstern Lagoon, the largest of Belize’s coastal lagoons, support two nesting colonies of American woodstorks (Mycteria americana). A third lies in Bennett’s Lagoon in the Bulkhead area adjacent to the eastern coastline of Belize.
SACD conducts monthly (boat surveys) and annual surveys (aerial surveys) to monitor important bird nesting colonies and possible threats.
Sharks and rays
There are at least four shark species reported for CBWS (Bonfil, 1997) – bull (Carcharhinus leucas), blacktip (C. limbatus), nurse (Ginglymostoma cirratum) and bonnethead (Sphyrna tiburo) – mostly sighted in the Bulkhead Shoal area to the southern end of the Wildlife Sanctuary. The Wildlife Sanctuary is considered an important nursing and pupping area for these elasmobranchs, and recent surveys have highlighted it as the only documented bull shark nursery in Belize (Graham, 2010). The presence of a mixture of juvenile and adult longnose stingrays (Dasyatis guttata) of both sexes suggests that coastal lagoons such as Spanish Point are important for this species at different life stages, particularly as a potential pupping site, and as a site that maturing longnose rays move to at times when salinity is reduced. Also recorded are southern stingrays (Dasyatis americana) and Caribbean whiptail stingray (Himantura schmardae).
SACD is collaborating with the Belize Shark Project (MarAlliance) to build a greater knowledge of shark and ray use of CBWS.
CBWS has some of the most extensive mangrove habitats in Belize, supporting a diverse range of birds, mammals, crustaceans and fish. In their multifunctional capacity, they form the basis of a complex marine food chain, creating breeding habitat, establishing sheltered waters that offer protection to fish and other organisms in the shallow, coastal lagoons, stabilizing bottom sediments, and protecting shorelines from erosion. They have an important role in preserving water quality through reducing pollution by filtering suspended material and assimilating dissolved nutrients.
Maintenance of mangrove areas has been identified as critical for ecosystem functioning, especially in the face of climate change. Baseline mapping of the coastline vegetation was completed in 2011 (Lloyd et al., 2011) and is updated on a regular basis.
Seagrass forms an important, highly productive ecosystem, supporting the traditional fishing industry, and providing nurseries, shelter and food for a wide variety of commercially, recreationally and ecologically important species. The two key species of seagrass in CBWS are turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) and shoal grass (Halodule wrightii). Baseline mapping of seagrass beds started in CBWS as part of the project “Establishing the baseline for seagrass and mangrove area cover in five Marine and Coastal Protected Areas within the Meso-American Reed area”, and aims to provide a baseline on seagrass habitats through remote sensing and ground thruthing data.
Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary houses one of the few modern stromatolite reefs in the world. The stromatolite reefs are made up of cyanobacteria mats that form on the surface and underneath layers of solidified cyanobacteria mats form sedimentary rock. Over time, the surface mat solidifies and a new mat of cyanobacteria forms, building up these stone-like formations. CBWS is globally important in representing these rare reef structures.