The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System (BBRRS), inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, is comprised of seven protected areas; Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve, Blue Hole Natural Monument, Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, South Water Caye Marine Reserve, Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, Laughing Bird Caye National Park and Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve. The largest reef complex in the Atlantic-Caribbean region it represents the second largest reef system in the world. The seven protected areas that constitute the BBRRS comprise 12% of the entire Reef Complex.
The unique array of reef types within one self-contained area distinguishes the BBRRS from other reef systems. The site is one of the most pristine reef ecosystems in the Western Hemisphere and was referred to ‘as the most remarkable reef in the West Indies’ by Charles Darwin. Outside of the reef complex the property contains three atolls; Turneffe Island, Lighthouse Reef and Glover’s Reef. The Barrier Reef and atolls exhibit some of the best reef growth in the Caribbean. The reef complex is comprised of approximately 450 sand and mangrove cayes.
The property provides important habitat for a number of threatened marine species, harbouring a number of species of conservation concern including the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), green turtle (Chelonia mydas), hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta), and the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) as well as endemic and migratory birds which reproduce in the littoral forests of cayes, atolls and coastal areas. Major bird colonies include the red-footed booby (Sula sula) on Half-Moon Caye, brown booby (Sula leucogaster) on Man O’War Caye and the common noddy (Anous stolidus) on Glover’s Reef. Approximately 247 taxa of marine flora have been described within the complex and over 500 fish, 65 sceleritian coral, 45 hydroid and 350 mollusc species have also been identified, in addition to a great diversity of sponges, marine worms and crustaceans.
Criterion (vii): The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System (BBRRS) is unique in the world for its array of reef types contained in a relatively small area. As the longest barrier reef in the Northern and Western Hemispheres and distinctive on account of its size, array of reef types and the luxuriance of corals thriving in a pristine condition it provides a classic example of the evolutionary history of reefs and reef systems. The rise and fall of sea level over the millennia, coupled with natural karst topography and clear waters, results in a diverse submarine seascape of patch reefs, fringing reefs, faros, pinnacle reefs, barrier reefs as well as off-shelf atolls, rare deep water coral reefs and other unique geological features such as the Blue Hole and Rocky Point where the barrier reef touches the shore. The spectacular picturesque natural setting of brilliant white sand cayes and verdant green mangrove cayes is in dramatic contrast to the surrounding azure waters.
Criteria (ix): Illustrating a classic example of reef types, including fringing, barrier and atoll reef types, the BBRRS contains an intact ecosystem gradient ranging from the terrestrial to the deep ocean. Including littoral, wetland, and mangrove ecosystems, to seagrass beds interspersed with lagoonal reefs, to the outer barrier reef platform and oceanic atolls, this ecological gradient provides for a full complement of life-cycle needs, supporting critical spawning, nesting, foraging, and nursery ecosystem functions. Maintaining these ecological and biological processes ensures robust and resilient reefs, which are them selves one of the world’s most ancient and diverse ecosystems.
Criteria (x): Home to a diverse array of top predators, on land, sea and in the air, the jaguars of Bacalar Chico, the great hammerheads of the Blue Hole, and the ospreys of Glovers Reef are a testament to the property’s importance and its ecological integrity. A total of 178 terrestrial plants and 246 taxa of marine flora have been described from the area while over 500 species of fish, 65 scleractinian corals, 45 hydroids and 350 molluscs have been recorded. Numerous endangered species are protected within the boundaries of the BBRRS including; the West Indian manatee, the American crocodile and three species of sea turtle. The property also provides valuable habitat for three species of groupers, and the red-footed booby. The BBRRS is also home to endemic species including several Yucatan birds, island lizards, several fishes, tunicates, and sponges, making it an area with one of the highest levels of marine biodiversity in the Atlantic.