Belize’s Most Revered Aquatic Haven – Hol Chan Marine Reserve

5 March 2014

Extending from Belize’s border with Mexico to the north, to the Guatemalan border in the south, the Belize Barrier Reef System is considered the largest barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere and the world’s second largest reef system.

It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996 and is home to more than 500 species of fish and possibly the world’s largest West Indian manatee population.

The Hol Chan Marine Reserve (HCMR) forms part of this barrier reef and was established in 1987 to protect the colorful marine life that attracts more than 60,000 visitors to the area each year.

The largest town in the area, San Pedro, which was immortalized by pop diva Madonna in one of her eighties’ hits, was traditionally dependent on fishing. However, by the late 1970s there were signs that commercially valuable fish stocks were declining. At the same time, tourists started flooding in and fishermen were finding alternative livelihoods as tour guides.

In the early 1980s, conflict between fishermen and the tourism industry arose and tour guides proposed banning commercial fishing and giving protected status to the reef in front of San Pedro town, leading to the creation of the reserve.


Images of the site


Size and Location

The HCMR is located at the northernmost end of Belize’s barrier reef complex off the small island of Ambergris Caye and next to the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Originally, the reserve covered 18 square kilometres, but it was expanded in 2008 and now extends over 55.3 square kilometres, from approximately 6.4 kilometres southeast of San Pedro to the southern tip of Ambergris Caye. The HCMR is mainly a marine reserve protecting coral reefs, sea grass beds and underwater flora and fauna. It does not encompass any beach or terrestrial area other than wetlands and mangrove ecosystems.

The HCMR is divided into four management zones: barrier reef, seagrass beds, mangrove and Shark Ray Alley, each with its own management objectives and regulations, including no-take zones where fishing is strictly prohibited.

Although it is technically not part of the HCMR, Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve, located at the northern tip of Ambergris Caye, is often considered the terrestrial portion of the HCMR. The park was established in 1996 and is separated from Mexico only by the narrow Bacalar Chico channel, dug by the Mayans around 1,500 years ago. This protected area, which used to be an important Mayan trading post, is home to littoral forest, jaguars and pumas.

Flora and Fauna

The HCMR’s marine flora consists mostly of large expanses of sea grass (Thalassia testidinum), red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle), black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) and white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa).

Its sea life includes the endangered manatee (West Indian) and endangered marine turtle species such as hawksbill, logger head and green turtles. Commercially valuable fauna include several species of fin fish, queen conch and spiny lobster.


In 2009, Belize’s Barrier Reef Reserve System was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage in Danger due to mangrove destruction and excessive development in the area.

The HCMR has been repeatedly threatened with the projected construction of mega developments in the area. For example, in 2007 the government of Belize tried to sell Cangrejo Caye, which lies next to the HCMR, for this purpose. Such attempts have been controversial and have been stalled by locals on every occasion, who oppose them and are aware of their own dependence on the fragile coral reef and habitats that support endangered marine life. The Reserve wetlands are crucial to the survival of the West Indian manatees that feed on the seagrass that grows in the area, and its coral reefs are critically linked to the survival of their main inhabitants, such as the three endangered marine turtle species.

To prevent the potentially disastrous consequences of such developments, locals have created several powerful organizations, including Green Reef, the San Pedro Tour Guide Association and Ambergris Citizens for Sustainable Development.

Through enforcement and surveillance, education and community outreach, research and monitoring, and environmental management programs, the HCMR staff and local and international environmental organizations are able to effectively manage issues connected to tourism growth.

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