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Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve

Case Authors

Dave Gershman, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve was established in 1993. It is located off of the coast of Belize and includes Glover’s Reef Atoll, which contains the greatest diversity of reef types in the Caribbean.

Protecting the atoll is important to the conservation and maintenance of the larger Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System that stretches south to Belize from the Yucatan of Mexico. Belize has a smaller population and less coastal development than other areas with coral reefs which helps the resiliency of the coral reefs in the area.

The government of Belize established the reserve which is managed by its Fisheries Department with assistance from the non-governmental organization Wildlife Conservation Society.

The marine reserve primarily restricts fishing, the main threat to the health of the ecosystem. Enforcement is conducted by rangers stationed on the atoll, though resources are limited. The owners of small resorts on the atoll and traditional fishermen are actively involved in supporting management actions.

MEBM Attributes

  • Complexity: Consideration of an ecosystem perspective; setting a goal to preserve biodiversity.
  • Adaptive Management: Use of science to monitor ecosystem changes, determine the impact of human activity, and integrate knowledge into management actions.
  • Adaptive Management: Commitment to measure progress toward realizing management objectives and define approaches to overcome limitations.


Mission and Primary Objectives


The mission of Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve has three components:

  • To protect and maintain ecological processes and preserve genetic diversity.
  • To maintain natural areas for education and research.
  • To provide social and economic benefits through ecologically sensitive recreation and tourism.


The following objectives have been established to support the mission:


  • To preserve the outstanding beauty, uniqueness and naturalness of the atoll.
  • To regulate use of the area to ensure the sustainability of its resources, resilience of its ecosystems, and maintenance of ecological processes.
  • To provide protected habitats for commercially important species in order to enhance recruitment and replenishment, thus achieving sustainable yields, and to demonstrate these benefits to fishermen.
  • To protect critical habitats for endangered species.
  • To manage the area based on sound scientific information, and based on adaptive management principles.

Education and Research

  • To encourage use of the atoll for applied scientific research by the national and international scientific community, and to feed the results of research into the marine reserve’s management-decision process.
  • To foster use of the atoll as a study center by both local and international students.
  • To foster awareness of the importance of the marine environment, and the marine reserve specifically, through educational and interpretive programs to encourage use of the reserve as a training center in marine resources and Marine Protected Area (MPA) management, and for demonstrating the benefits of MPAs.

Recreation and Tourism

  • To provide undisturbed areas for tourism and recreation in a controlled and well-informed manner.
  • To enhance the social and economic benefits of the area by promoting uses compatible with conservation and sustainable development principles.

Key Parties

Lead Organizations


  • Belize Fisheries Department


  • Wildlife Conservation Society

Key Parties

Stakeholders on the atoll and the mainland, including:

  • Traditional fishermen
  • Operators of tourism-related businesses


Program Structure


Management of the Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve is conducted by the Fisheries Department, a unit of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. On-site management at the atoll is conducted by a reserve manager who oversees a marine biologist and several rangers.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, which has a scientific station on the atoll, provides assistance to the Fisheries Department through collaborative research and monitoring activities. It also assisted in the development of the management plan of the reserve, which was updated in 2007.

Advisory Committee

Stakeholder involvement is facilitated by an advisory committee, which makes recommendations on the development of policy and matters affecting the marine reserve and management, and assists with enforcement activities. A stakeholder agreement, which strengthened the advisory committee, was signed in 2000.

The advisory committee includes 14 representatives, including seats for communities on the mainland. Two groups, members of fishing cooperatives and residents of the atoll, have the largest number of representatives, with three seats each. Two seats are allocated to representatives of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The following groups have one seat each:

  • Fisheries Department
  • Co-Operative Department
  • Tour guide industry
  • Belize Audubon Society
  • Hopkins Town Council
  • Fishermen from Sarteneja

Stakeholder input informed the development of the management plan and was gathered through meetings of the advisory committee and interviews with fishermen, operators of tourism-related businesses, management staff and researchers.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

In 1993, Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve was established on a foundation of national and international commitments by the government of Belize for the conservation of its marine resources.

The marine reserve was declared under the authority of the Fisheries Act of 1983, which allowed the government to set aside marine areas that provide special protections to aquatic flora and fauna, and to protect and preserve natural breeding grounds and habitats of aquatic life.

Belize had long recognized the importance of Glover’s Reef Atoll, and its role in the wider Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. In 1983, regional governments in the Caribbean adopted the Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region. The regional treaty facilitated cooperative actions and led to the adoption of the 1990 Protocol Concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife in the Wider Caribbean Region. The objective of the protocol is to protect rare and fragile ecosystems through establishment of Marine Protected Areas.

The protocol also serves as a regional mechanism to help Caribbean governments achieve the broader aims of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, a United Nations-facilitated treaty. To assist in fulfilling its commitments, Belize developed a National Strategy on Biodiversity to achieve ecological and economic sustainability. The strategy acknowledged the need for Belize to develop human and institutional capacity to effectively manage biodiversity resources. It included provisions for decentralizing management, and establishing community-based participation and partnerships with non-governmental organizations.

In 1996, UNESCO designated the Glover’s Reef Atoll as a World Heritage Site which provided support for continued management.


Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

Glover’s Reef Atoll is located about 45 kilometers east of the mainland of Belize and consists of a peripheral coral reef broken in only three places by deep channels that allow water to flow between its lagoon and the sea. It is 32 kilometers long and 12 kilometers wide, and supports a highly diverse biological ecosystem.

The reef crest has six sand cayes, which are privately owned. Inside the lagoon are about 850 patch reefs and pinnacles that rise to the surface of the water. The shallow lagoon provides nursery and feeding habitat for at least three species of marine turtles, eight species of sharks and rays, more than 20 species of reef fish and numerous species of coral. The northeastern end of the atoll provides one of the largest and last-remaining areas for a large Nassau Grouper spawning in the Caribbean.

Access to the atoll is only by sea. While there is no permanent residential community on the atoll, four small resorts are located on the sand cayes. Divers, kayakers, fly fishermen and sightseers travel to the atoll, staying at the resorts or on live-aboard vessels. Commercial and traditional fishermen also operate nearby. In 2005, 35 fishing boats were active in the area, seeking out finfish, lobster and conch.


Overfishing is the biggest threat to the ecosystem. An increasing number of fishermen from neighboring countries are fishing illegally, leading to reported reductions in the populations of species, especially lobster and conch. Other threats include:

  • Damage to coral and other habitat from boats running aground, anchors, and the negligent actions of divers and snorkelers.
  • Chemical run-off from mainland development and agriculture.
  • Natural events, such as hurricanes, which can disturb the ecosystem.


Major Strategies

Marine Protected Area

About 25 percent of the marine reserve – an area that encompasses more than 70 square kilometers – is protected by restrictions on fishing. The following four zones have been instituted to ensure multiple uses of the resource continue and to manage it in a sustainable manner:

  • General Use Zone. At 261 square kilometers, the General Use Zone is the largest of the zones and permits fishing. However, the use of certain types of gear, such as fish traps, commercial nets and long lines, is prohibited. In 2007, the revised management plan described the pending implementation of a special licensure program to limit the number of fishermen in the marine reserve and give priority to fishermen who traditionally operated in the area.
  • Conservation Zone. Encompassing 20 percent of the marine reserve – 70 square kilometers – the Conservation Zone permits only non-extractive activity, such as diving and snorkeling. Fishing had been allowed by special license for subsistence purposes, though, as the revised management plan described, that allowance was due to end because of conflicts with traditional fishermen. In addition, anchors cannot be deployed in areas in which mooring buoys are present. The zone is intended to protect a representative sample of habitat, and provide an area for recreation and research. It encompasses all of the cayes on the atoll.
  • Closure Zone. A small, seasonal closure zone had encompassed the spawning area of the Nassau Grouper and was effective during three months of the year. However, it has been replaced by spawning site protective legislation that closes a comparable area year-round.
  • Wilderness Zone. As the smallest of the zones, the Wilderness Zone preserves a small representative area of habitat by prohibiting entry without special permission. The area is to be free from disturbance and to be used as a baseline for research and monitoring projects.

Outreach and Education

Outreach and education is primarily conducted on the water by rangers who patrol the marine reserve. However, the marine reserve has attempted to reach out to tourism business operators and the fishing community, using the advisory committee as a vehicle.


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation


Several long-term monitoring programs have been started, including the collection of fisheries catch data, information collection at spawning sites, the recording of turtle nesting information and the gathering of data relating to the health of coral. The marine reserve has involved stakeholders to perform monitoring tasks such as the use of fishermen to monitor commercial marine species.

The revised management plan, published in 2007, provides a framework to facilitate specific research and monitoring activities by the Fisheries Department or external researchers. The Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates a research station on Middle Caye within the marine reserve, provides information that can close gaps identified in the government-run monitoring programs.

The management plan prioritized research and monitoring programs that have not been undertaken but are needed to discern the impact of human activity. Those priorities include investigating the impacts of sport fishing and the use of cast nets for bait collection; investigating the impacts of kayaking, wind surfing and sailing; and investigating the impacts of snorkeling and diving.

Research and monitoring proposals are reviewed by the Fisheries Department, though the marine reserve planned to establish a research review committee.

Assessment and Evaluation

The revised management plan calls for the results of new research and monitoring programs to be integrated into the management planning process.

In revising the plan, management accomplishments were weighed against the goals of the prior plan, published in 2003. Twenty-eight percent of the action points listed within the 2003 plan had been implemented successfully, and 50 percent had been implemented partially.

The process identified significant weakness in the execution of the interpretation and education program, and challenges in enforcing rules and regulations. Both were hampered by a lack of resources.

A visitor center, new education materials and an outreach program was recommended by the revised management plan, though funding had not been secured at that time. Meanwhile, the Fisheries Department had been developing an enforcement plan to guide marine reserve staff through standardized procedures for approaching and apprehending suspected violators.



Resource Protection

A 2006 assessment found the zoning prohibitions on fishing within the marine reserve were an effective tool to protect the resource. Conch and lobster were found in higher densities within the Conservation Zone. However, illegal fishing was impacting the area and staff limitations were highlighted as the obstacles to more effective resource protection.

Stakeholder Ownership

Stakeholders are actively supporting the marine reserve and demonstrating that they have a stake in its success. Fishermen, for instance, are assisting in monitoring programs. In addition, resort owners have contributed toward the salary of an extra ranger to overcome staffing shortages. Small donations were received to purchase binoculars for rangers and ropes for mooring buoys.


Website Links

Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve:

Belize Fisheries Department:

Wilderness Conservation Society, Belize: