Washington, D.C. - For the first time, the world's largest fish, the elusive whale shark, will enjoy legal protection when it swims to the waters surrounding the island of Little Water Caye. Those waters represent the only known place in the hemisphere where the whale shark predictably congregates, usually following full moons in April, May and June.
The 3,360-acre (1,360ha) marine protected area includes the water surrounding Little Water Caye, a tiny five-acre island 18 miles off Belize's southeastern coast. The island will house a marine research station and ranger headquarters, and will serve as the management base for surrounding marine protected areas, including the nearby Gladden Spit Marine Reserve and the Laughing Bird Caye World Heritage Site.
"In terms of biodiversity, this area is one of the greatest crown jewels in the Mesoamerica barrier reef, the second largest coral reef on the planet," said Dr. Sylvia Earle, Executive Director of Conservation International's Global Marine Program. "As we hear stories about the precipitous declines of fish populations all around the world, it becomes even more critical to protect these unique places."
The majority share of the island was purchased for Friends of Nature, a Belizean non-governmental organization comprised of five local communities. They will own and manage the majority of Little Water Caye. The minority share of the island will remain in the hands of a private owner who has agreed to prevent the development of Little Water Caye.
The purchase of the island by Friends of Nature was made possible primarily through Conservation International's Global Conservation Fund, which provided $272,000 out of the total purchase price of $297,000.
"The local communities that founded Friends of Nature were the first to discover the rare whale sharks that congregate in the area and became determined to do something to protect them," said Costas Christ, Senior Director of Conservation International's Ecotourism Program. "By promoting marine education in local schools and supporting eco-friendly tourism, they have set an example for how conservation, local communities and responsible travel can work in harmony to save the marine environment."
The region surrounding Little Water Caye is considered one of the highest priority areas for conservation in the Caribbean by several environmental organizations due to its high biodiversity. The acquisition of the island helps consolidate a 45,676-acre (18,485ha) marine conservation corridor in the region. Gladden Spit and the Silk Caye marine reserve fall to the east of Little Water Caye, and the nearby Laughing Bird Caye national park falls to its west.
The biodiversity-rich area is home to more than 25 reef fish species that regularly aggregate to spawn, including the Endangered Nassau grouper, the Mutton snapper and the Cubera snapper. But perhaps the most awe-inspiring creature in the entire region is the whale shark.
The large whale sharks can live to 100 years, grow to 50 feet and weigh as much as 27,000 pounds. Although found in tropical seas throughout the world, its spawning congregations are notoriously unpredictable.
"Now that we own and will manage the majority of Little Water Caye, we can ensure that these magnificent creatures will have a safe place to call home for generations to come," said Lindsay Garbutt, Executive Director of Friends of Nature. "We are quite pleased that we can both generate revenue for our communities through ecotourism and preserve our natural environment, all while hopefully encouraging other communities to do similar conservation work."
Conservation International's Global Conservation Fund (GCF), which provided the majority of financing as well as significant technical expertise to this project, invests exclusively in projects located in biodiversity-rich areas.
"This project is a good example of how the GCF does its work," said Marianne Guerin-McManus, Executive Director of the GCF. "Through this strategic land deal, we have helped a community-based organization secure a tiny island with huge importance for marine biodiversity."
The Global Conservation Fund (GCF) is the first fund of its kind in the world, with a pool of ready cash available for creating and expanding protected areas with high concentrations of unique biodiversity. The GCF became possible as a result of a $100 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
Photos, maps and interviews available to journalists upon request.