Turneffe Atoll

The Beach at Turneffe Atoll. Image Credit: Turneffe Island Resort.

The Turneffe Atoll in Belize has been recognized for more than forty years (1970s) as one of the Caribbean’s top destinations for bonefish, tarpon and permit. World-class saltwater anglers extol the adventure of stalking the difficult-to-achieve, prestigious, “Grand Slam” that is, catching a bone-fish, permit and tarpon all in one day.

Turneffe Atoll is a chain of small Caribbean cayes (islands) due southeast of Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye, 20 miles (32 km) off the coast of Belize City, Central America. At 30 miles (48 km) long and 10 miles (16 km) wide, this is the largest true atoll in Belize and the Mesoamerican Reef System. The Turneffe Atoll was declared a national marine reserve by the government of Belize on 22 November 2012.

Size: The Atoll itself is approximately 48.3 km long and 16.1 km wide (30 miles long and 10 miles wide), within a marine management area encompassing approximately 131,690 ha / 1,317 km2 (325,412 acres).

Location: Turneffe Atoll is located 32km (20 miles) east of Belize City and is surrounded by deep oceanic waters. Turneffe is considered the largest and most biologically diverse coral atoll in Belize, and in the Mesoamerican Reef ecoregion.

Uses: Extractive and non-extractive – commercial, non industrial fishing (lobster, conch and finfish), tourism (including sport fishing, diving, snorkeling and ecotours), education and research.

Biodiversity information: The land and seascape consists of a network of highly productive flats, creeks, and lagoons dotted by more than 150 mangrove islands and higher cayes with savanna and littoral forest. Large expanses of intact mangrove and seagrass habitat and shallows provide important nursery functionality for a wide array of fish species, crocodiles, lobster, conch and other invertebrates. In addition, at least three known important fish spawning aggregation sites have been identified. The Atoll is surrounded on all sides by open sea. – Source: Turneffe Management Plan Belize Department of Fisheries.

Oceana Belize is an organization that is fighting to conserve our marine resources. In 2012 it organized a press tour of Turneffe Atoll and nearby areas and hosted actress Kate Walsh seen here diving at Turneffe. Kate is an Oceana supporter and ardent promoter of sea turtle conservation efforts.

Turneffe Atoll Ecosystem

More than 150 mangrove islands and cayes with savanna and littoral forest cover make up Turneffe. Threatened and commercially critical marine species make their home at Turneffe Atoll. This environmentally diverse land and oceanscape is made up of an elaborate network of salt water flats, creeks and lagoons. Vast expanses of sea grass and mangrove shallows and habitat provide an essential nursery for fish species, lobster, conch, crocodiles and invertebrates.

fisherman turneffe atoll
Fisherman on his way to work at Turneffe Atoll.

The sea grass sites were very alike in terms of biomass; this is despite the difference in location within the atoll (windward and leeward). The distribution of biomass across the different sections of the plant differs however. In the results obtained for Calabash Caye site, the biomass ratio of above ground: below ground appear to indicate that the site is not a healthy one.

This may be as a result of poor water quality and can affect stability during storms and asexual reproduction (MBRS 2006). It is important to note that this result is based on one monitoring session and thus further regular monitoring is recommended to support or confirm this assessment.

Turneffe Atoll Coral Reef

Coral reefs support two major industries in Belize: tourism and fisheries. Reefs also provide shoreline protection that is crucial for the development and settlement along the coast. In 2008, the World Resource Institute estimated that the economic contribution of the reef to Belize is between USD 268 and 370 million dollars (WRI 2008). Turneffe Atoll represents 15% of Belize’s coral reefs, (Meerman, 2005) and like the Caribbean and Mesoamerican region, over the past decades it has experienced numerous impacts both natural and anthropogenic, such as storms, coral bleaching, ship groundings and coastal development.

turneffe-atoll map
Map shows the location of Turneffe Atoll 25 miles east of Belize City.

In general the reefs at Turneffe Atoll were identified as being in poor health. The major contributing factors were lowered abundance of herbivores (urchins and fish) and poor coral cover. Healthy Reefs 2010 reported a fleshy macro algae cover of 17.3% for 2009. The 2012 MBRS assessment show a macroalgae cover of 16.5%. This cover of macroalgae may not yet reflect the large absence of herbivores, which was reported to be twice as abundant in 2009 with a mean biomass of 1144 g/100m2 (Healthy Reefs 2013).

Reference: Trevor Vernon from Turneffe Atoll Status Report updated 2013

Oceanic Society Turneffe Biological Diversity Report

Images Courtesy Serge Melki under Creative Commons License Attribution 2.0