The Belize Barrier Reef and, by extension, Mesoamerica is under threat by coral bleaching. The event is normally triggered when warmer waters than usual enter the normal eco system and it is felt that due to higher temperatures from global warming, coral bleaching is likely to occur more regularly. If not managed, the process can have adverse effects on our economy as well as household incomes, which depend on the tourism dollar. News Five’s Isani Cayetano has a report on the phenomenon.

The Mesoamerican Reef System, an international eco-region spreading across the coast of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, includes the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. It is both delicate and robust. The Mesoamerican Reef is home to more than sixty-five species of stony coral. Coral reef ecosystems contain a vast collection of aquatic invertebrates, making them the greatest example of higher-level biodiversity on Earth.

In Belize, there are three virgin, circular-shaped coral reefs, known as atolls. The Great Blue Hole lies within one of these formations. Along with a mosaic of fringing, lagoonal patch, barrier, and island reefs they have earned the Jewel the distinction of being one of the world’s leading dive destinations. The Belize Barrier Reef System, a cornucopia of marine life, is a riot of ornate corals and is inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site List.

Over the past seventeen years, however, the kaleidoscope of living coral colonies has been reduced to a monochrome bed of tombstones, the vestige of what was once a thriving reef.

Isani Cayetano

Isani Cayetano

“This occurrence is a process called coral bleaching. It is often caused by increased water temperatures, as well as increased exposure to sunlight. Mass bleaching events have led to significant losses of live coral in Belize and globally. It is one tangible and lasting result of climate change.”

Dr. Melanie McField, Director of Healthy Reefs Initiative, has been actively involved in the study of coral bleaching since the mid-nineties.

Dr. Melanie McField, Director, Healthy Reefs Initiative

“When we are in the middle of a coral bleaching event there is a lot of attention and interest focused on it because you notice that the corals turn white and the reef looks very strange. But once the event passes the impacts can kind of go a little undetected, you know, you have to be measuring the corals to look at the amount of it that has died. Usually it lasts for a couple months and then you begin to see the color coming back, the few algae that are still in the coral can re-grow and sometimes they can even take new algae from the water. And, you know, that’s one hope that maybe they will take; some coral species can shuffle which algae lives inside them and some of the algae may be more robust than others. And that’s one of the hopes is that over time the corals, through small bleaching events that don’t kill them they will be able to adjust which algae lives inside them and maybe pick some that are more well suited to higher temperatures.”

The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System is important to the continued existence of tropical marine biomes. Rapidly increasing ocean temperatures, precipitated by global warming, are likely to increase the severity of future coral bleaching events.

Lisa Carne

Lisa Carne, Marine Biologist [File: WWF Documentary]

“We know that there will only be more hurricanes and more bleaching events so we are hoping that we can propagate more of the stronger genotypes of corals and really just encourage the natural repopulation of these corals so that the idea, the goal is one: to save the species from extinction so they don’t die out completely and two: to begin to restore some of the ecosystem services that we want from a natural healthy reef.”

Coral bleaching can greatly reduce live coral cover and increase the frequency of coral disease, as well as other diseases that thrive in higher temperatures.

Dr. Melanie McField

“One example is the Elkhorn coral that forms the basis of the actual barrier reef, the part that reaches almost to the surface, and that died due to a disease in the early eighties, Caribbean-wide. That species of coral provides so much habitat for fisheries and the loss of that is something that really went unmeasured in terms of linking it to what amount of fisheries loss was related to the loss of that coral.”

The decline of fisheries, while mainly due to over-fishing, is exacerbated by coral bleaching and disease. Its effects are usually felt in the pockets of consumers, who often end up having to purchase overpriced fish.

Alfred Ramirez

Alfred Ramirez, Fish Vendor [File: April 21st, 2011]

“Di fish dehn dah eight dollars right now. Right now gas expensive, yo goh out deh yo wah pay nine dollars, eight dollars, five dollars, six dollars. Gas dah twelve dollars a gallon yo check. Now I dah only di clean man ah cyant sell right now cause farm me usually buy and sell. Ah cyant sell because a di way di price dehn di go. So right now as yo notice ah di slice up dis barrow ya and di try hurry dis fi geh wah next job.”

Biennial surveys of reef health published in 2008 indicated that the Mesoamerican Reef was vulnerable, with more than fifty percent of the three hundred and twenty-six sampled reef sites in poor or critical condition. The 2010 report found further deterioration. Of a hundred and thirty reefs studied, thirty percent were in critical condition, forty percent were poor, twenty-one percent fair, eight percent good and a mere one percent very good. These rankings were based on the abundances of coral, macro algae and key families of fish.

Time is crucial in aiding the recovery of this underwater habitat. While steps have been taken to conserve what’s left and efforts are being made to mitigate familiar threats, it is important that as a region we bring in to line the management of the Mesoamerican Reef in order to secure its future.

Melanie McField

Dr. Melanie McField

“One of the great things that Belize has done as a country is to implement full protection of parrotfish and surgeon fish. Those are the key grazing groups, families of fish on the reef. So in 2008, the International Coral Reef Symposium, which was the leading group of scientists worldwide that study coral reefs, one of their recommendations for what countries could do to protect the reefs was to protect parrotfish and that very next year, in 2009, Belize took the step to fully protect them. So it’s the first country in the Caribbean that’s done that and it’s being applauded and other countries now are looking at it as a measure.”

Among other steps taken is the creation of coral nursery sites. Of the eleven locations across the country, six are found in the south.

Reef degradation is often thought of as a conservation problem or a threat to sustaining our reef-dependent tourism industry, but fishermen and consumers also feel the effects. The annual rush for seafood during Easter reflects the consequence of coral bleaching through an overabundance of undersized fish.

Patrick Thompson

Patrick Thompson, Consumer [File: April 21st, 2011]

“Honestly, some of the fish that I am seeing out here this morning they are very small, you know. To get the nice, average size fish you have to come out much earlier in the morning to get the size fish weh yoh woulda want. If yoh wait until now or later this evening the size might just get smaller.”

As policymakers, fishermen and consumers across the Caribbean we must face the harsh reality that our casual approach to the resulting decline of coral reefs, mainly from bleaching, disease and hurricane events will ultimately result not only in the loss of a breathtaking marine environment, but the loss of income from tourism, irreparable damage from natural disaster, and the forfeiture of entire fish stocks that sustain our people and way of life.

Dr. Melanie McField

“The health of the coral reef is not only important to scientists or to tourists that want to look at the reef but it’s very important to fishermen who want to catch fish and consumers who want to eat fish because the coral itself is the architect of the city the reef is kind of like a city. The coral is all the buildings. Most of our coastline is actually protected by the reef and without that reef there the erosion of the beach would be much greater than it already is right now. So that has a value in terms of coastal property, resorts and we’re continuing to develop so more and more that value is very important. There’s a lot more we could do with more resources. We’re spending very little money on managing that reef and the reef is giving us a lot of money. It’s giving us between three hundred and fifty and five hundred fifty million U.S. dollars a year. That’s a lot of money, that’s through goods and services that we are now reaping from the reef and if we want to continue that, we should be able to continue that in the future, we can grow it. We can reap even more; we can increase tourism in a responsible way but if the reef isn’t there it’s not gonna happen.”

Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

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