Mangroves line a channel connecting the Belize River to the coastal lagoon system. These trees are hundreds of years old and provide important habitat to both terrestrial and marine species. (Steve Canty, Smithsonian Marine Station)

Belize - Together, We Can Save the Mangroves | Smithsonian Voices | National Museum of Natural History

A boa dozes lazily in the boughs of a mangrove tree in Belize, while birds nest nearby and white mangrove orchids adorn the tree’s woody branches. Oysters, sea anemones and algae cling to its tangled roots, which dip beneath the water and give shelter to fish. Hundreds of plants and animals rely on trees like this one throughout their life.

Mangrove ecosystems are one of the most valuable in the world, not only for the habitat they provide for wildlife, but also because they prevent coastal erosion and absorb and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Climate change and deforestation have driven mangroves into decline, though deforestation has slowed in the last decade.

Steve Canty, the coordinator of the Smithsonian Institution’s Marine Conservation Program and part of the Smithsonian’s Working Land and Seascapes, hopes to help create management strategies to further slow the loss of mangroves.

A person in waist-deep water with trees in the background.
Steve Canty emerging from a cay dominated by red mangroves in Belize. (Loraé Simpson, University of Alabama)

Mangroves and fisheries are connected

Canty studies mangroves and fisheries in the Mesoamerican reef (MAR) region, which stretches through Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico. Fisheries are important contributors to the GDP of this area.

“They provide food security and livelihoods and are often the economic backbone of coastal communities,” Canty said. To effectively manage fisheries, Canty also needs to look at their habitat: mangroves.

Mangroves are important feeding grounds and nurseries for fish, meaning some fish species spend their juvenile years sheltering between mangrove roots before living on coral reefs or in the open ocean as adults. When mangrove forests decline, it can cause devastating effects on fish populations. One square mile of mangroves lost can cause 275,000 pounds of lost fish per year.

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