Fish Spawning Aggregations: A Reef Resilience Toolkit Module



Belize Barrier Reef, Belize, Mesoamerican Region


The country of Belize is located in Central America and borders the Caribbean Sea. Together with Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, it is home to one of the longest barrier reef systems in the world. The marine waters of Belize are state-owned, and the state controls the water 12 nautical miles seaward of the shoreline. A large portion of the population lives in coastal areas, and Belizeans are highly dependent on marine resources. Fishing and tourism are major economic activities, and a significant lobster and conch export industry exists.


Belize Case Study (7:25)

Fishers, officials, and scientists discuss fish spawning aggregation conservation in Belize.

Belize has demonstrated its dedication to marine conservation through the establishment of a network of coastal and marine reserves and parks. The 1928 declaration of Half Moon Caye (HMC) as a Crown Reserve was an important first step in marine conservation in Belize. The reserve was established primarily to protect a breeding colony of red footed boobies, which was extended in 1982 to include the entire island and surrounding waters, and coincidentally included a multi-species fish spawning aggregation. HMC was declared a Natural Monument in 1982, as the first reserve in Belize and the first marine reserve declared in Central America. In 1995, a Protected Areas System Plan was published, which outlined the development of a comprehensive marine and terrestrial protected areas system.

Protected areas in Belize can be legislated through two different systems, The Fisheries Act or the National Parks System Act (NPSA). Under the Fisheries Act, Marine Reserves are zoned as multi-use, but include some fully closed areas. All categories under the NPSA (Natural Monuments, Wildlife Sanctuaries, National Parks and Nature Reserves) are entirely for non-extractive uses, with Nature Reserves having the highest level of protection; no entry except for permitted research is allowed. All other categories maintain “no extraction” clauses; they have intermediate protection, and do allow managed tourism and research.

In 1996, UNESCO inscribed The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System as a World Heritage Site. This non-traditional “site” actually includes 7 marine protected areas within Belize, including: Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve and National Park, Glovers Reef Marine Reserve, Blue Hole Natural Monument, Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, South Water Caye Marine Reserve, Laughing Bird Caye National Park, and Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve. The Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve was the only marine protected area that included specific legislation to protect aggregating finfish. A seasonal area closure was designed for the northeastern tip of the atoll from January through March, in order to protect the endangered Nassau grouper, Epinephelus striatus.

Nassau groupers. Photo © Julie Stockbridge

In the mid-1980s, Nassau groupers were intensively studied in Belize. Mito Paz, Executive Director of Green Reef Environmental Institute, sponsored a national Nassau grouper monitoring effort in January 2001. This event was the first of its kind. The results of this national survey showed a drastic decline in Nassau groupers at known aggregation sites, based on anecdotal information and publications reported in previous years. Of significance is the case that occurred at Caye Glory, where the Nassau grouper fishery was documented to yield two tons of grouper per day during the spawning season (fish were capture by local fishers using hand lines and fish traps), in a study in 1968. During the national survey in 2001, only 21 fishes were observed at the site and spawning was not observed. Six fishers present at the sites during the surveys indicated that they had been fishing at the site for 6 days and had only captured 1 single Nassau grouper, demonstrating that the Nassau grouper population had drastically declined. Other sites showed decline, and in fact only 3 Nassau grouper FSA sites were thought to be viable spawning aggregations.

Belize FSA Sites (1:16)

Will Heyman discusses different FSA sites in Belize.

More recently, annual surveys of Nassau grouper on Glover’s Reef have been undertaken. The Nature Conservancy began its research on spawning aggregations at Gladden Spit in 1998, and has continued research there and at Lighthouse Reef Atoll, while also providing support to monitoring teams at other sites.

In 2001, all of the major governmental and non-governmental organizations working on spawning aggregation monitoring and conservation in Belize formed the National Spawning Aggregations Working Group, which was chaired by The Belize Audubon Society for several years, and now by Friends of Nature. This informal group has worked to validate, monitor and describe 13 multi-species spawning aggregation sites in Belize, and has involved local aggregation fishers in the monitoring and research at these sites. Armed with three years of monitoring data, the group proposed sweeping national legislation to protect endangered Nassau groupers by means of a closed season. The enacted legislation protects all of the viable spawning aggregation sites that are known to harbor multi-species aggregations.

During its initial years of existence, the National Spawning Aggregations Working Group raised the issue of conserving spawning aggregations using a variety of techniques. The Minister of Fisheries visited traditional fishing sites, talked with fishers directly, and came to understand the issues. Various members of the group conducted workshops, developed posters, radio and television spots, infomercials and short videos, and gradually raised the nation’s consciousness on the subject. Fishers were involved in all major research and monitoring, and were paid for their assistance as boat captains and as research assistants. Fishers in the primary communities that exploited the FSAs were also provided training in alternative livelihood activities, such as SCUBA dive guiding, kayaking and fly-fishing. The local fishing cooperatives, which act as the main fish buyers/exporters, support the idea that FSA protection enhances the future of sustainable fisheries, and now actively participate in spawning aggregation protection.

Gladden Spit. Photo © Rachel T. Graham

The Nature Conservancy then developed a series of maps that located reef promontory spawning aggregations. These maps were based on the analysis of geo-referenced satellite imagery. Using GPS , 13 spawning aggregation sites were mapped into buffer zones of about 6–8 square miles. When presented with these maps in a public forum, the fishers agreed with the concept, but suggested that the size of the aggregation closures be reduced. New maps were created and shared with fishers who agreed to the new boundaries.

Prior to signing the legislation to protect spawning aggregations, the Minister of Fisheries requested that patriarch fishers join him in a public forum, to ensure that he was adequately representing their interests. Each fisher offered support, which prompted the Minister to sign the legislation in November, 2002. The legislation created a closed season for Nassau grouper between December and March, and fully protected 11 new marine reserves surrounding the spawning aggregation sites that were previously established. The signing ceremony took place at a public Fisherman’s Festival, sponsored by TIDE, the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment. TIDE is an important advocate of conservation and local sustainable development, and is involved in the co-management of protected areas in Belize’s southern Toledo District, including Port Honduras Marine Reserve and Payne's Creek National Park.

Principal challenges to the protection of Belizean FSAs include lack of enforcement and lack of funding. Enforcement at all closed sites is not 100 percent effective, as evidenced by fishers’ observations of boats at the FSAs during spawning seasons, and observations of Nassau grouper in the marketplace during spawning months. This is particularly disturbing to the compliant fishers who support the closures and hope to see improvements in the spawning populations. A related problem is a lack of funding for both enforcement and monitoring. Members of the committee note that the lack of funding prevents the above noted problems with enforcement from being addressed fully.

Lessons Learned

Database training. Photo © Sergio Hoare

Funding Sources

OAK Foundation Belize
P.O. Box 1161
1216 Blue Marlin Boulevard
Belize City, Belize

Summit Foundation
2100 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Suite 525
Washington, DC 20037

U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)
Ronald Reagan Building
Washington, D.C. 20523-1000

Partner Organizations

Member organizations of the Belize Spawning Aggregation Working Group:

Belize Audubon Society
Belize Fishermen Co-operative Association
Belize Fisheries Department
Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute
Friends of Nature
Green Reef Environmental Institute
Hopkins Fishermen Association
Placencia Fishermen Co-operative
The Nature Conservancy
Toledo Association for Sustainable Tourism and Empowerment
Toledo Institute for Development and Environment
University of Belize
Wildlife Conservation Society
World Wildlife Fund

Contact Info

The Nature Conservancy
MesoAmerican Reef Program
12 avenida 14-41 zone 10
Guatemala City, GUATEMALA 01010
Primary Contact: Alejandro Arrivillaga, Marine Conservation Specialist


TNC Mesoamerican Reef Program

Belize Spawning Aggregations Working Group

Caye Glory Case Study Video

Belize’s evolving system of marine reserves (Gibson et al. 2004)

Status of reef fish spawning aggregations in Belize. Proceedings of the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute (Heyman and Wade 2007)

Fish spawning aggregations in the MBRS region: recommendations for monitoring and management (Heyman et al. 2003)


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