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Mapping marine debris across coastal communities in Belize: developing a baseline for understanding the distribution of litter on beaches using geographic information systems


Monitoring of marine debris (also known as marine litter) is an essential step in the process to eradicate ecological dangers in marine ecosystems caused by humans. This study examines marine debris in the Caribbean country of Belize using geographic information systems (GIS) to develop (1) a detailed data library for use on handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) units and tablets with mobile mapping applications for deployment in the field and (2) a freely available, online mapping portal to share data with Belizeans to encourage future citizen science efforts. Four diverse communities were targeted ranging from larger more populated towns, to smaller villages across central and southern Belize: San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Punta Gorda, and Monkey River. Fieldwork was conducted over 1 month, during which data points were collected in 50-m surveys followed by debris cleanup and removal. Features in our database included material, quantity, item, brand, and condition. Over 6000 pieces of debris were recorded in GIS for further analysis, and 299 gal of debris were removed from the shores of Belize. The most abundant form of debris observed was plastic (commonly bottles) across all locations; plastic comprised 77.6 % of all debris items observed. Through GIS, a detailed snapshot understanding of debris patterns across multiple settings in Belize was documented. Ongoing collaborations with local organizations in Belize have demonstrated significant interest and utility for such GIS approaches in analyzing and managing marine debris. The data, methodology, visual representations, and online mapping platform resulting from this research are a first step in directly supporting local Belizean community advocacy and policy, while contributing to larger institutional strategies for addressing marine debris issues in the Caribbean.

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This work would not have been possible without the financial support of the Department of Geosciences and Honors College at Georgia State University. In addition, the people of Belize were a daily resource for help and local knowledge. Special thanks to the time and attention given by Ilda Marin of the Caye Caulker Village Council, Leandra Cho-Ricketts of The Environmental Research Institute, Norman Budna of TIDE, and Joni Miller of Ocean Academy.

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Correspondence to Paulita Bennett-Martin.

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Bennett-Martin, P., Visaggi, C.C. & Hawthorne, T.L. Mapping marine debris across coastal communities in Belize: developing a baseline for understanding the distribution of litter on beaches using geographic information systems. Environ Monit Assess 188, 557 (2016).

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  • Beach litter
  • Belize
  • Caribbean
  • Central America
  • GIS
  • Marine debris