The Chan Chich Lodge Night Sky

Night Sky by Chan Chich Lodge guest Phillip Witt

Night Sky by Chan Chich Lodge guest Philip Witt

A ping from my electronic calendar recently reminded me of the upcoming appex of the Perseid Meteor Shower between August 11th and 12th. I’d specifically marked it because this will be one of the first times I’ll be in a location so beautifully free of light pollution.

Although we do much of our work in remote locations, it’s surely a matter of luck to be in one of them at just this moment and this year,  when scientists say the meteor fall will be of the greatest density in 20 years. Chan Chich Lodge is located in the midst of 33,000 acres of private land, with the only infrastructure other than the lodge itself being a small village and the farming operations of Gallon Jug. 9-plus miles of trails branch off from the lodge, as well as simple gravel access roads. Continue reading

Chan Chich Field Notes: Black Howler Monkey

Female howler monkey with newborn by Emil Flota - La Paz Group

After my morning shift I went for my usual walk with my camera on Sylvester Village Road, looking at the beautiful surroundings and listening to the sounds of the forest. I heard something very unusual, which was a little frightening when I realized the sound was coming from above me. I looked up just in time to see a howler monkey giving birth. It was a very emotional moment, and when I finally felt calm enough to lift my camera I caught the mother bringing the baby up to her face on film.  Continue reading

Gallon Jug, Conservation The Belizean Way

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Two months ago I had the opportunity to visit Chan Chich Lodge in Belize, something I had wanted to do for decades.  Sometime in the 1990s I first heard of it, from various visionaries in Costa Rica who considered it to be a model on which to base development, both at the property level and for the destination as a whole. Chan Chich was mentioned frequently in conversations, in Costa Rica and throughout Mesoamerica, when the notion of sustainable tourism was first being developed. Continue reading

Pristine Nature

Chan Chich

In writing about Belize recently, I had mentioned time spent with a tapir, favored in the diet of jaguar throughout Central America. The photo above was taken on property at the lodge my posts were referring to. Rule of thumb, it seems to me, is that a jaguar population requires relatively pristine nature to be sustainable, and that seems to be the case where this photo was taken. But what do I know, really? I am dedicated to entrepreneurial conservation but I am not a biologist so I depend on experts to inform my thinking, and to discipline it with a heavy dose of realism. In reading this post from earlier today I am better prepared to think about the mission of Chan Chich Lodge (more on which in a subsequent post), and the history of the 30,000 acre wilderness conservation area that it sits on:

Gallon Jug

At one time, the venerable 150 year old Belize Estates Company owned roughly one fifth of the entire country, about one million acres including much of the northwest corner of the country. From the turn of the century until the 1960’s, timber, mainly mahogany, cedar and santa maria, were selectively logged from this area. Gallon Jug, originally a logging camp located where the current GJ offices are, was named after a B.E.C. foreman, Austin Felix, discovered many discarded items from a Spanish camp, including a number of ceramic gallon jugs. Continue reading

Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival


Photo credit: Erin Spencer

Photo credit: Erin Spencer

I’ve posted previously about the lionfish invasion that is threatening coral reef and other marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Southern Atlantic Seaboard of the United States. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, it is the general consensus of the scientific and conservation community that eradication of lionfish from the Atlantic is impossible. However, there is growing evidence that systematic removal efforts can be effective in controlling lionfish populations and in reversing their negative impact on reef health. The challenge faced by marine protection agencies and marine resource managers is how to undertake these removals on a regular and financially sustainable basis. I’m convinced that this challenge can best be met by an integrated approach involving coordinated action by public and private actors complemented by the creation of markets for lionfish products.

All of these elements were in evidence at the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day festival in Pensacola, Florida which I attended last month. Organized by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the two-day event included a lionfish derby (with more than 8,000 lionfish removed by volunteer divers), lectures about the invasion and the threat that it poses, lionfish cooking and tasting, and sale of lionfish products.

Notable among the sponsors of the event was Whole Foods, which had announced a few weeks earlier that it was going to begin selling lionfish at its stores in California and Florida. The move by whole foods was sparked by the decision late last year of Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program to list lionfish as a best choice under its sustainable seafood recommendations, citing the invasive nature of the species. As I had noted in a previous post, Seafood Watch had previously declined to list lionfish due to the absence of an established commercial fishery, but to their credit, the group responded to what they described as a “grassroots campaign” and revisited the issue. Moreover, since taking the decision to list lionfish, Seafood Watch has been active in raising awareness about the invasion and in promoting lionfish consumption. Continue reading

Forward To The Past

crist and boys tikal.jpg

A few days ago I mentioned, in reference to my recent visit to Belize, an earlier visit to Tikal in Guatemala. In the photo above, taken in 1999, three future La Paz Group contributors (Seth Inman, me, and Milo Inman from left to right) were getting our “om” on in preparation to climb the stairs in the background.

Amie Inman, who took that photo, reminds me that she and I had been to Tikal earlier, without our two sons. On both occasions we had the kind of mystical experiences for which this location is known. We had climbed the temple in advance of sunrise, as recommended (no photos from that with us currently, so credit for the photo below goes to a fellow wordpress blogger; click the photo for attribution).


What we all remember about our visits to Tikal, and on a separate journey to Copan in Honduras we had the same sense, was how the archeologists and the relevant authorities in these particular national parks had done just the right amount of excavation. Some things were left to the imagination. Seth and Milo, in a conversation we overheard, said that Tikal was much better than Disney World, because it was real – it was like being Indian Jones. Our understanding of “real” was “unspoiled” in the sense that one could see plenty of uncovered evidence of Mayan culture, and also see that these artifacts of that culture eventually were swallowed by the jungle. Continue reading

Lost & Found, Geological Trickery, Conservation


I had the opportunity to visit a site in Belize that had been on my radar for most of the last two decades. On my radar, but chance had conspired to keep me away, until last week. I will write more about that visit soon, but for now I want to share a thought on the photo above, and the one below (since I neglected to snap photos while standing in exactly the same location as the photographer who took these two, my thanks to him for his website’s provision of these two images).


These are commonly referred to as looter’s trenches, on opposite sides of a Mayan burial site. They are relatively fresh. The family that owns the property on which these trenches were dug, by tomb raiders looking for valuables, decided that the best way to protect the patrimony of this site was to ensure that there were always people nearby to keep looters away. A lodge was built, and it became a pioneering success story in protecting both archeological and natural patrimony. In other words, what we call entrepreneurial conservation. Continue reading

Lionfish Jewelry Update – Caribbean Gulf and Fisheries Institute Conference

I’ve posted previously about the emergence of lionfish jewelry as one of several market-based approaches to controlling the invasion of this non-native species which poses an unprecedented threat to marine ecosystems in the Western Atlantic.

Last month I had the opportunity to make a presentation on lionfish jewelry at a special workshop on lionfish management that was held during the annual conference of the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute, in Panama. The conference program also included a full-day lionfish research symposium and a lionfish research poster session, both of which gave me an opportunity to learn more about the science aspects of the lionfish invasion and some of the latest findings on lionfish biology and behavior and to meet some of the leading researchers on these subjects.

The lionfish management workshop, which was organized by the United Nations Environment Program’s Caribbean Regional Activity Center on Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW-RC) and the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), brought together marine scientists, managers of marine protected areas, fishermen, and representatives of international organizations to share experiences and lessons learned with respect to strategies for controlling the invasion. Continue reading

Belize Lionfish Jewelry – Update


Belize Lionfish Workshop participants with their certificates

Belize Lionfish Workshop participants with their certificates

I’ve posted previously about the emergence of lionfish jewelry as one of several market-based approaches to controlling the invasion of this non-native species which poses an unprecedented threat to marine ecosystems in the Western Atlantic.

Last month, for the third year in a row, I spent two weeks in Belize where I had a chance to get an update on how the market is developing.  I started my visit in Placencia, which is home to Kaj Assales, the most successful of the lionfish jewelry artists in the country, with her own jewelry line which she sells through her boutique as well as online.  It was my first chance to visit her shop and to see some of her new designs.

Next I spent a week in the Sapodilla Cayes with ReefCI, the NPO that I first collaborated with to help jump-start the lionfish jewelry market in the country.  This gave me a chance to practice my lionfish spearing skills, as the ReefCI team and visiting volunteers continue to remove several hundred lionfish per week dissecting a sample of 30-40 of these for stomach content. Data on size, sex, and stomach content is provided to the Belize Fisheries Department and has been a valuable input to its national lionfish control strategy.  Coincidently, ReefCI’s lionfish control program was profiled in the August issue of United Airlines magazine; not only a nice recognition of the group’s efforts, but also a great boost for raising awareness about the lionfish invasion. Continue reading

Support Needed for Lionfish Jewelry Workshop

© Seavenger’s Trident Super Dive Store

For the past several years, I have been involved in helping to develop markets for lionfish jewelry as a way of addressing the threat posed by this invasive species, which is severely compromising the health of coral reefs throughout the Caribbean by eating reef-dwelling fish. Belize is home to the second largest barrier reef in the region, and its lobster and conch fisheries could really benefit from a break of overexploitation, so encouraging lionfish fishing in any way possible will promote reef recovery.

My last post, in fact, was about my trip to northern Belize last summer, when I collaborated with two local NGOs in Belize to train women from a coastal community on how to create lionfish jewelry. This August, I will again be joining one of these groups – Blue Ventures, for a lionfish jewelry workshop for women from other areas. As you can see from the pictures here and in my previous posts, lionfish fins, tails, and spines are beautiful; they’re also relatively low-cost to transform into jewelry. These parts of lionfish were previously discarded, but when kept and transormed into jewelry the value of landed lionfish catch increases by up to 40%, creating additional incentives for fishers to target and remove lionfish Continue reading

Fighting Invasive Lionfish – Update

I’ve posted previously about the lionfish invasion that is threatening coral reef and other marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Southern Atlantic Seaboard of the United States. Availability and dissemination of information about the invasion was recently given a big boost through launch of the Invasive Lionfish Web Portal The portal is a collaborative effort of a number of partners, led by the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute. It is a great resource, providing links to a range of information about the invasion, including journal articles, videos, photos, recipes, a Twitter feed, etc..

Another recent development has been the release of a draft United States National Invasive Lionfish Prevention and Management Plan. Developed by the U.S. Government’s Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, the plan is intended to help coordinate the actions of the various government agencies and other stakeholders involved in dealing with the invasion. While such a plan is long overdue, and in that sense is welcome, I’m quite disappointed that the plan largely ignores, and indeed implicitly discourages, an important element of an effective strategy for addressing the invasion – namely the use of market-based approaches.

As I’ve indicated in my previous posts, the Atlantic lionfish invasion is a unique problem that requires innovative solutions. Continue reading

Citizen Science in Belize – Update on Lionfish Jewelry: Part 2

Assorted lionfish jewelry from Palovi Baezar, Punta Gorda, Belize

Assorted lionfish jewelry from Palovi Baezar, Punta Gorda, Belize

In Part 1 of this post I wrote about my recent visit to Belize to help with further development of the nascent  market for lionfish jewelry; one of several market-based approaches to addressing the threat to Southwest Atlantic marine ecosystems posed by the invasion of this non-native species. I noted that the market is most advanced in the area around Punta Gorda, in Southern Belize, in large measure due to the support provided by ReefCI which has provided training on jewelry making to a group of local women and is supplying them with lionfish spines, fins, and tails as well as marketing assistance.

Lionfish spines, fins, and tails ready for jewelry

Lionfish spines, fins, and tails ready for jewelry

While ReefCI’s involvement has been instrumental in getting things started, further development and expansion of the market will require engagement with artisans and women’s groups in other parts of the country, particularly areas closer to major tourist markets. Interventions are also needed to develop a reliable and sustainable supply chain for lionfish jewelry production and sales. I was pleased to hear from one of the jewelry makers in Punta Gorda that a local fisherman had approached her about selling lionfish tails. This was music to my ears, as one of the motivations behind the lionfish jewelry idea has been to up return to fishers in order to create added commercial incentive for them to hunt lionfish (the fish cannot be caught using conventional fishing methods such as hook and line or nets, but must instead be speared or hand-netted by diving). Continue reading

Citizen Science in Belize – Update on Lionfish Jewelry: Part 1

Freshly dried lionfish fins and tails. Photo: Polly Alford, ReefCI

I’ve written in previous posts about the initiative to develop a market for lionfish jewelry as one of a number of commercially sustainable approaches to fighting this invasive species that is threatening marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Southern Atlantic seaboard of the United States. In my last post, I mentioned that the idea is beginning to take off in Belize.  I was able to observe this first-hand last month, spending two and a half weeks in the country.  During my stay I had the opportunity to meet local artists who are making lionfish jewelry and to participate in several workshops to share techniques and designs.  Continue reading

Controlling Invasive Lionfish – Update on Market Solutions: Part 2/2 — Lionfish Art

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Array of dried lionfish spines and tails -ready for jewelry use Credit: ReefCI

In Part 1 of this post regarding market-based solutions to fighting the lionfish invasion that is threatening coral reef and other marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Southern Atlantic Seaboard of the United States, I wrote about the challenge of developing commercially sustainable strategies for undertaking the systematic removals that are needed to keep lionfish populations under control. I discussed the need to develop a series of vertical markets, pointing to promotion of lionfish as a seafood choice as the most obvious of these. Capture of juvenile lionfish for the aquarium trade as another.  A third market, and one in which I’m personally involved, is use of lionfish spines and tails for jewelry and other decorative items.  Continue reading

Citizen Science in Belize – Update – If You Can’t Beat’em, Wear’em

Lionfish spine earrings crafted by Palovi Baezar, Punta Gorda, Belize. Credit: Polly Alford, ReefCI

In earlier posts about my volunteer experience in Belize with ReefCI, I talked about the lionfish invasion that is threatening coral reef and other marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Southern Atlantic Seaboard of the United States, and noted that, at least for the foreseeable future, human intervention, particularly the establishment of a commercial fishery for the species, appears to be the only solution to keep the invasion under control.

I mentioned the idea of lionfish jewelry as a possible way of increasing the economic return to fisherfolk who may otherwise be reluctant to go after lionfish given the difficulty of catching them (the fish must be harvested by spearing or hand netting rather than through traditional methods such as lines or nets). I’ve been pleased to learn that at least one artisan in Belize has picked up on the idea, using some of the lionfish spines that I collected while I was there. She has already crafted some beautiful earrings (see photo above) and is working on other jewelry items as well as decorative mirrors. Elsewhere, jewelry crafted from lionfish tails and fins is being sold online, and through a retail outlet in Curaçao.  Continue reading

Citizen Science in Belize: Part 2/2 – If You Can’t Beat’em, Eat’em

Photo by Alexander Vasenin

Lionfish sushi – Photo © World Lionfish Hunters Association (click on photo to visit their website)

In Part 1 of this post I talked about the lionfish invasion that is threatening coral reef and other marine ecosystems throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Southern Atlantic Seaboard of the United States.  Scientists, environmental groups and governments that are studying the problem have all come to the conclusion that it is probably impossible to eradicate lionfish in the Atlantic – they are here to stay. Continue reading

Citizen Science in Belize: Part 1/2

Photo © ReefCI

Photo © ReefCI

It might seem strange to accompany a posting about marine conservation with a photo of a fish on a spear, but in this case, it is entirely warranted.

I recently returned from the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve in Southern Belize, where I spent two weeks working as a volunteer with ReefCI, a NGO dedicated to coral reef ecosystem conservation. Located 30 miles off the coast of Belize on the southern tip of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (the second largest in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef), the Sapodilla Cayes constitute a unique ecosystem.

Along with other volunteers, I assisted the ReefCI marine biologist with population surveys of conch, lobster, and commercial fish species, as well as coral reef health checks. At least one, and sometimes two surveys were carried out each day. The data collected is provided to the Belize Fisheries Department as well as to other cooperating NGOs.

Now about that fish on a spear. One of ReefCI’s projects is lionfish control. Spears Continue reading

I Belize I Can Fly

Guest Author: Robert Frisch

The tiny islands or “cayes” off the coast of Belize sit in the middle of beautifully serene coral atolls and are surrounded by the world’s second largest barrier reef.  Like shallow lakes in the middle of the ocean, the atolls host several UNESCO world heritage sites and some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the world.  My team, consisting of three Johnson  students and an MPA student from the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs, found itself tasked with providing consulting services and business advice for the owners of one of these cayes in what turned out to be the most unique spring break of my life. Continue reading