Coral reefs are the rainforests of the tropical seas filled with vibrant life in a multitude of shapes, sizes and colors. The beauty and complexity of this ecosystem draws tourists to Belize which is important to Belize's national economy. The reef supports fishermen that use Turneffe as an important fishing area.
Turneffe is considered one of the best developed coral atolls in the Caribbean. It is surrounded by a fringe reef that is well-developed on the east side, with a well-formed fore reef, reef crest and prominent back reef flats. The large, sheltered, relatively shallow inner lagoon supports patch reefs, cayes and extensive mangrove, while beyond the reef crest, the outer slopes of the Atoll fall steeply away into deep water.
Both hard and soft corals are well represented with at least forty-eight of the sixty species of hard corals known to be in Belize identified at Turneffe. Ten of these are considered critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable on the global scale including the reef building staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) and elkhorn (Acropora palmata) corals. The most abundant species encountered are Sea Ginger (Millepora alcicornis), followed by the Yellow Porites (Porites astreoides), Lettuce Coral (Agaricia tenuifolia) and the endangered Boulder Starr Coral (Montastrea annularis).
Even though the reef at Turneffe, where land based impacts are minimal and water clarity is high, is one of the healthier reefs in the Caribbean, the percentage of live coral at Turneffe has declined significantly over the last twenty years. This is a world-wide trend that has been attributed to a multitude of reasons including climate change, over fishing, pollution and siltation from dredging. Since 1998, when Belize experienced a major coral bleaching episode, bleaching events have been recorded at Turneffe Atoll with increasing frequency, likely accentuated by increased acidification resulting from higher CO2 levels in the seas.