Newswise — The tiny Central American country of Belize, about the size of Massachusetts, is bejeweled by the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, second only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef. A research initiative launched by Earthwatch Institute, in partnership with local resource management NGOs, will lead to the effective conservation of this outstanding marine ecosystem and the local livelihoods it supports.

"Belize is a diamond in the rough, a focal point of tropical biodiversity perched on the brink of sustainability," said Dr. Mark Chandler, director of conservation at Earthwatch Institute. "Earthwatch is uniquely equipped to provide the people-power and scientific data that will support the local community's resource management objectives as well as global conservation agendas."

Despite having one of the lowest population densities in the world and retaining 93 percent of its tropical forest, nearly half of it under legal protection, Belize is not sheltered from immense environmental concerns. Coastal development, industrial growth, overfishing, and tourism activities are changing the landscape and threatening the barrier reef offshore that coastal communities rely on for their livelihoods.

The Meso-American Barrier Reef that lies off Belize is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Earthwatch initiative is part of a multi-national effort to monitor and protect the health of this ecosystem. The reef supports hundreds of species of fish and other animals, including critically endangered manatees and marine turtles as well as struggling populations of lobsters and queen conch that are vital to the local economy.

Volunteers on Earthwatch's Sustainable Southern Belize project will help leading scientists and local communities collect data on the many habitats of the reef, with research sites in Port Honduras Marine Reserve and Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve. Some teams will focus on the resiliency of the coral reef itself, responding to an 80 percent drop in Caribbean coral cover in the last three decades due to coastal pollution, coral diseases, and climate change. Other teams will spend their days on the water in and around the "cayes," or coral islands, monitoring seagrass beds, mangrove forests, or denizens of the reef such as sea turtles, birds, lobsters, or queen conch.

Earthwatch's Belize initiative was conceived in partnership with local community leaders, government agencies, and NGOs such as Toledo Institute for Development and the Environment (TIDE) and Toledo Association for Sustainable Tourism and Empowerment (TASTE). In a unique collaboration, these local stakeholders gave counsel on local conservation priorities and research questions that Earthwatch could help address.

"We came at the right time," said Dr. Karl Castillo, the field director for the Belize Conservation Research Initiative (CRI) who is originally from Belize. "We have a host of NGOs that co-manage the reef, but the problem is that they only have management capacity. Earthwatch can assist them with the hard scientific data to make effective management decisions."

Earthwatch's Belize initiative is one of four CRIs in key ecosystems around the world, located in Brazil, Australia, Kenya, and now Belize. Playing to Earthwatch's strength of engaging people in science-based solutions, all of the CRIs provide focused research findings in response to local community conservation needs.

Earthwatch Institute is a global volunteer organization that supports scientific field research by offering members of the public unique opportunities to work alongside leading field scientists and researchers. Earthwatch's mission is to engage people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment. The year 2006 marks Earthwatch's 35th anniversary.

For more information on how to volunteer on Sustainable Southern Belize, go to

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