Engaging Fishers in Marine Protected Area Design in Belize

Acropora prolifera in Belize. Photo © Jennifer Adler

Seleni Cruz

A Reef Resilience Network Manager’s Story

Belize Marine Protected Area Network

Belize's Blue Hole

Belize's Blue Hole. Photo © Jennifer Adler

Belize is home to a vast array of habitat types, including mangrove forests, seagrass beds, coral reefs, and coastal wetlands. The country’s coastal waters house part of the Mesoamerican barrier reef system, which is the largest reef system in the Americas, creating ecosystems rich in biodiversity with thriving fish populations. For local communities, the health and productivity of fisheries is especially significant, as they provide a source of food and income. To safeguard these fragile ecosystems and valued marine resources, Belize’s marine waters are managed under a network of marine protected areas (MPAs). Non-extractive zones or replenishment zones (RZs) represent 3 percent of Belize’s MPA network; however, due to small zone size and fragmented distribution, the effectiveness of the RZs has been limited. Over time, it became evident that current RZs needed to increase in size as important fish stocks, like spiny lobster and queen conch, were continuing to decline.

The government of Belize and local and international nongovernmental organizations acknowledged need for strengthened marine resource protection. These groups formed a partnership to implement the National Replenishment Zone Expansion Project to expand protected RZs within Belize’s MPA network. The first phase of the RZ Expansion Project focused on increasing protection of open, deep-sea areas, as this habitat type is the most underrepresented in the MPA network.

Meet the Manager

Seleni Cruz (center) at the 2015 Puerto Rico Resilience Training

Seleni Cruz (center) at the 2015 Puerto Rico Resilience Training. Photo © Reef Resilience Network

Seleni Cruz, Conservation Coordinator for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Belize, became involved in the RZ Expansion Project in 2013, where she used technical computer modeling to identify sites for expansion and habitat protection. She also helped develop an economic alternatives strategy for seaweed and sea cucumber farming for fishers to support sustainable fisheries management.

To ensure deep sea and sport/tour fishers were included in the RZ expansion design process, Seleni planned a series of consultation meetings on the importance of RZs and the long-term benefits of protecting marine resources. These meetings were also designed to foster new relationships with stakeholders and encourage them to participate in the RZ design process by providing local knowledge and input for the proposed plans. Before conducting consultation meetings, Seleni recognized the importance of building her communication and facilitation skills to lead productive and effective meetings.

Reef Resilience Network Support

Seleni was nominated by her supervisor to attend a training led by the Reef Resilience Network (the Network) to help prepare her for the consultation meetings. During the training, she learned about resilient MPA design for fisheries management and how to use the latest science when developing recommendations for no-take areas. She also gained experience in strategic communication planning and facilitation methods and tactics.

During the training, Seleni worked with experts to develop key messages for the RZ Expansion Project and discussed methods for communicating with stakeholders. Seleni also connected with participants from the training who shared their challenges and successes in management, which introduced her to new approaches to coral reef management.

The Reef Resilience Network Training was an introduction to communication and facilitation for me and provided an excellent foundation for me. I still find myself using and building upon the skills and framework I learned from this training.”


After the training, the Network awarded Seleni a seed funding grant to support the implementation of the stakeholder consultation series as part of the first phase of the RZ Expansion Project. She applied the communication and facilitation skills she learned from the training by creating a targeted communication strategy and developing key messages to use during stakeholder consultation meetings, like how the RZ Expansion Project can benefit each stakeholder group. Seleni also used the grant to support the mapping of seaweed and sea cucumber farming areas.

Successes and Next Steps

Seleni used the seed funding grant to hold 10 consultation meetings over two months, where she rolled out her communication strategy. She used key messages she created during the training when presenting to deep sea and sport/tour fishers on the importance of MPAs and RZs and revealed sites considered for RZ expansion. Before the consultation series, stakeholders were concerned that the RZ Expansion Project would impact their livelihoods and were guarded about discussing their local fishing sites. As the meetings progressed, the group’s understanding of habitat protection and fisheries management improved.

“The Network training helped me articulate key messages to use during stakeholder consultations and provided helpful skills on how to facilitate conversations with fisher folk, which was a big part of the work I was doing.”


During these meetings, stakeholders also had the time to review design plans and discuss their opinions about the expansion. Because of Seleni’s effort to engage stakeholders in resource management decisions, they were more open and willing to participate in the expansion design planning process. Through these meetings, Seleni gathered valuable input from local fishers about fishing sites and habitat types and created a new map to include their feedback. The new map was incorporated into the first phase of the RZ Expansion Project and was presented to the government of Belize for approval and implementation.

In 2019, the RZs in Belize expanded from 4.5 percent to 11.6 percent of Belize’s territorial sea. Expansions occurred in the open or deep-sea area, with depths ranging from 200 to 3,000 meters. The Belize Fisheries Department, in collaboration with other local and international partners, selected the expansion zones with the aim of maximizing potential conservation benefits while minimizing disruptions to the fishing community. Seleni is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Delaware focused on the intersection of economics, fisheries, climate resilience, and policy.

Elkhorn coral in Belize

Elkhorn coral in Belize. Photo © Shireen Rahimi

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