By Jonathan Canton for The Reporter

As the Deepwater Horizon story floods the news channels this summer, Belizeans have begun to show a renewed interest in our own oceans.

Numerous coalitions have formed to combat offshore drilling interests in Belize and a rising number from an otherwise indifferent population are beginning to appreciate the value of one of our more precious natural phenomena.

One can only admire the fervor of the Belizean people for looking after our beautiful belongings. Nonetheless, one has to wonder if this heightened level of environmental consciousness will spill over into other more pressing issues, such as the current destruction of the reef.

A recent study published in Current Biology describes the relationship between people and the health of barrier reefs. The findings suggest that if we are interested in looking after our barrier reef, perhaps the first objective should be to understand the relationship between the people living around the barrier reef and the reef itself.

The scientist behind this study is Joshua Cinner. Cinner has spent time living and studying the relationship between local populations and reefs all around the world including Papua New Guinea, Jamaica and even the Chetumal area.

His approach to understanding reef degradation is fairly unique. Instead of focusing on aspects of reef health such as fish populations and reef complexity, he incorporates the population density and socio-economic factors of the surrounding human environment.

In a recent Science magazine interview he was quoted saying, “It wasn’t really about the ecology. Making conservation work in Jamaica had a lot to do with understanding the local culture and people.”

He goes on to say, “You don’t manage fish. Fish swim and do their own thing. You manage people. Managing ecosystems is really about managing people and understanding what motivates them and their behavior.”

So how deep does the relationship between a reef and the surrounding population really go?

In Cinner’s study, there was a negative relationship between reef biomass (amount of living organisms such as fish) and human population density. So, the larger the human population living around the reef, the less organisms present on the reef.

This was not a new finding and seems obvious since as the population goes up, more people are likely to be fishing the reef.

The real novel finding was that the level of socio-economic development had a U-shaped relationship with the reef biomass. A U-shaped relationship indicates that at one end of the spectrum (relatively low community development), the reef biomass is high. At the middle of the spectrum, the reef biomass is low and at the other extreme (high community development), the reef biomass is high again.

The assumption is that as communities develop they fish more and remove more fish from the reef. However, when they reach a certain point of development and become more affluent, they begin to demand that certain environmental policies be put in place to protect the reef, and biomass begins to increase.

So then, where is Belizean society on this imaginary “U”?

It is not possible to say where exactly we stand on the socioe-conomic/ reef biomass “U” since there, to my knowledge, haven’t been any such studies performed and understandably so, as this is a relatively new observation.

Perhaps, as the Belizean people are standing up and speaking out about environmental conservation, it is time to really take hold and enhance our understanding of our country’s ecosystems.

Is it possible to develop, not at the expense of our fragile ecosystems, but in concert with them?

Will our people remain environmentally conscious when the Gulf oil spill is long forgotten?

We can only hope so.

Jonathan Canton is a Belizean doctoral student at a University in the States. He writes on Science and Ecology matters.

Marty's note: The author is the son of the CEO of BNE, the oil company pumping in Cayo, so I think that is the direction he wants to take this stand in. Environment coexisting with biz, possibly offshore drilling.