Thanks to a series of conservation measures enacted by Belize's government, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System—one the world's most incredible, diverse ecosystems—has been removed from the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger sites.
The historic decision came this week during a World Heritage Committee meeting in Bahrain, just five months after the Belizean government imposed a moratorium on oil exploration and drilling in all of Belize's offshore waters—a landmark piece of legislation that protected critical ecosystems and established the country as a new world leader in ocean conservation.
"At time when we are seeing numerous threats to World Heritage sites, Belize's government has taken real action to protect one of the world's most special places," said Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International. "We have seen an incredible turnaround from when the reef was being threatened by seismic testing for oil just eighteen months ago."
Comprised of seven protected areas, Belize's Barrier Reef System is the second-largest reef system in the world and is home to nearly 1,400 species, from endangered hawksbill turtles to West Indian manatees, sting rays, coral and six threatened species of sharks.
Nearly 200,000 people—more than half Belize's population—rely on the reef to live. Reef-based tourism and recreational activities provide vital sources of income and account for an estimated $200 million of Belize's GDP, while commercial fishing contributes about $15 million. The reef also provides important natural protection against damages from extreme storms along the coast.
The Belize Barrier Reef System was first inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996 in recognition of the site's incredible biodiversity and cultural significance. But in the last decade, exploration for oil, development along the coast, and a lack of strong regulations have posed increasing threats to the fragile ecosystem. The reef site was added to UNESCO's List of World Heritage in Danger in 2009 due to the threat of irreversible damage from harmful coastal construction and oil exploration.
Last year, more than 450,000 people from around the world joined WWF and other organizations—including Oceana, the Belize Tourism Association, Belize Audubon Society and Belize Institute for Environmental Law and Policy—to campaign against proposed oil exploration near the World Heritage site. They signed petitions, wrote letters, and used social media to urge the country's government to secure the long-term protection of the barrier reef.
Antonio Busiello / WWF-US
Their hard work payed off.
In December 2017, Belize agreed to put an end to oil exploration in its waters and began to secure the region against immediate threats—a critical step towards protecting the reef, its species and the people who rely on it. Belize is now just one of three countries in the world with such legislation.
"Belizeans stood up to protect their reef, with hundreds of thousands more globally joining the campaign to save our shared heritage. In taking swift collaborative action, Belize has shown that it is possible to reverse nature loss and create a sustainable future," added Lambertini.
Belize also recently adopted critical regulations to protect the country's mangroves and announced that it would begin to phase out single-use plastics like plastic bags, utensils, and take-out containers that threaten species and delicate ecosystems.
But there's still more work to be done to ensure that Belize's barrier reef and the rest of the World Heritage sites—and the 11 million people they support worldwide—continue to be protected for future generations.
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.