FILE - This photo taken March 2009 shows a Rainbow Parrot fish, front, passing by a group of yellow tail snapper off Caye Caulker Island near the second largest barrier reef that runs along the coast of  Belize.
FILE - This photo taken March 2009 shows a Rainbow Parrot fish, front, passing by a group of yellow tail snapper off Caye Caulker Island near the second largest barrier reef that runs along the coast of Belize.

MEXICO CITY - Belize approved a plan Friday to set aside 10 percent of its territorial waters as a protected area, tripling the size of existing reserves in the world's second largest barrier reef, according to an environmental group.

The major expansion of the small Caribbean island's protected areas follows a six-year effort by international scientists and conservation groups led by Belizeans, the Environmental Defense Fund said in a statement.

The coalition found zones that can protect marine habitat and allow for recovery of degraded ecosystems, while helping replenish fish stocks, the EDF said.

Coral reefs, diverse marine ecosystems formed from tiny organisms, have faced intensifying stress worldwide from rising ocean temperatures compounded by overfishing, pollution and tourism.

Scientists say they are key barometers of global warming.

The Belize government did not immediately respond to requests for confirmation of the move.

'Critical condition'

Parts of the Belize reef, a World Heritage Site, are in "critical condition," according to a 2018 report from environmental group Healthy Reef for Healthy People.

But a 2017 decision to ban offshore oil and gas activities was a step toward its possible removal from the World Heritage Site's "in danger" list, the group said.

"A healthy reef and vibrant fisheries sector is necessary for Belize to achieve its goals for reducing poverty, improving food security and nutrition and increasing investment," said Belize Fisheries Administrator Beverly Wade in the EDF statement.

Katie McGinty, EDF's Senior Vice President for Oceans at Environmental Defense Fund, called Friday's expansion of protected sites a "remarkable accomplishment that is setting an example for the rest of the world."