Belize to start blasting for oil near World Heritage site
Tuesday, October 18, 2016, 6:14 PM - Home to the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, Belize is a dream destination for many snowbirds.
But the Central American country has recently announced plans to to begin offshore oil exploration through a large swath of its Caribbean Sea waters, putting its thriving marine wildlife in a dangerous situation.
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The country plans to conduct seismic tests for sub-sea oil reserves starting on Thursday, but the threats to marine life have yet to be assessed.
Seismic testing, also known as seismic blasting, is a process that involves the use of air guns or cannons to blast deep beneath the ocean floor. It's an initial step in offshore drilling that helps locate oil deposits.
For marine wildlife, the process can be life-threatening. Dolphins and whales can lose hearing, disturbing communication and migration patterns.
The blasts will be carried out little over a kilometre away from Belize's Barrier Reef Reserve System, a World Heritage site that the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has listed to be in danger.
"WWF believes that an oil spill anywhere within Belize’s waters could be catastrophic for residents whose livelihoods depend on healthy marine and coastal ecosystems," the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said in a statement. "A spill also could threaten neighbouring areas of the broader Mesoamerican Reef System, which extends to Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras."
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Nadia Bood, Belize reef scientist for the WWF, said roughly 190,000 residents of Belize -- more than half of the country's population -- have tourism and fishery-reliant incomes.
"Oil would put the reef at risk," Bood says, "[B]ut it’s not too late to reverse this decision before the damage begins.”
In 2015 Belize enacted a ban on offshore oil exploration near or within the UNESCO World Heritage Site, but there are some loopholes that allowed this offshore exploration to be approved.
For starters, the ban has yet to be passed into law. It also features a small buffer zone, which the UNESCO World Heritage Committee requested to be revised to a safe distance from the reef.
Over a thousand different species of plants and animals -- including rare marine turtles, sharks, rays, and dolphins -- call Belize's waters home, the WWF notes. These species are also quite sensitive to underwater noise.
Several organizations in Belize have voiced concern about the risks of oil exploration poses to the local economy, the WWF said, adding that a coalition of these groups are calling on the government “to ban offshore oil from any of Belize’s offshore waters in the interest of promoting a sound environment and a sustainable economy.”