The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef got a C on its report card this year - meaning the overall health and state of the reef is fair. That's not good, but it's better than 2012, which was poor. This report card is done every two years and includes the evaluation of the living coral, commercial fish and other marine life found near the reef. The report was launched today at the Biltmore and the coordinators told us that there have been slight improvements in the health of the reef BUT there is still a lot to do to increase that C to a B or an A.
Roberto Pott, Belize Coordinator, Health Reefs for Health People "One of the highlight is that Belize is still the country to watch. I mean we protected Parrot Fish in 2009, so that has been working for us. Hol Chan recently multiplied their protected areas and that has been working for us. So those are some of the things that has really worked. Turneffe came on stream in 2012, and so there are a lot of positive aspect and the outlook is very good for Belize. But there are the tougher areas to deal with, sewage and infrastructure needed for sanitation in our developing tourism destinations, San Pedro and Placencia. That's a big concern for Belize."
Beverly Wade, Fisheries Administrator "You know when you're going to school there was a report card which says you either get an A or you get an F? Well that's what the Healthy Reef Initiative has strived to do. It's an attempt to give to stakeholders and to policy makers and managers, a snapshot of how your reef is doing at the end of the day. So there are key indicators that they use. They look coral cover and fish population. So they now tell you 'hey Belize, in this area this is your grade'. and we believe that you have this grade because of A,B,C and D. so it's an attempt to now advise us as managers, as policy makers where are the areas that you're doing good, because there are areas that there are improvements. So take for instance the area of herbivorous fish. We have enacted laws which have protected the parrot fish and herbivores in 2009. And their saying 'you know what, keep up the good work but maybe you need to do a little more enforcement. We're not saying your number is dropping but we'd like to see them go up a little bit more.' One of the 8 things in Belize is that we still have an open access fishery. Open access meaning that once you're a permanent resident you can go out and fish. It's not a good recipe for sustainability at the end of the day. So what we need to do is improve that. So we need to now, as mentioned earlier, roll out what we are referring to as our manage access program, which is an attempt to now regulate how people fish and the number of people who are fishing. Our grade is fair, it's not poor, it fair but it's not good either. So it is an indication that we have more work to do."
The report is based on an extensive study of 248 coral reef sites along more than 600 miles of the coast of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Some of the sites studied and evaluated in Belize are Lighthouse Reef and Laughing Bird Caye among others.
Belize, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras make up the Mesoamerican Reef and it’s been eight years since they last got their report card. Well, over those years in-depth and extensive studies were carried out as well as Healthy Reefs for Healthy People say we only got a “Fair” for the condition of the reef. But, looking closer to home, Belize performed at the bottom of the scale compared to Honduras and Mexico. Along with Guatemala, Belize got a “poor” mark. While the grade shows that some things must be addressed, there are areas that have improved since the last report card. Andrea Polanco joined a roomful of environmentalists today to find out why Belize’s reef condition is “poor”.
Andrea Polanco, Reporting
When you get a “fair” mark on your report card, it is not necessarily a bad sign, but it also isn’t the best sign. Well, that’s what Healthy Reefs for Healthy People are saying about the condition of The Mesoamerican Reef. The Reef got a “Fair” score on the overall health of its ecosystem. But, what’s Belize’s score? Belize still has a ‘poor’ score since eight years ago. With research conducted in ninety four sites in Belize, we have a grade of two point five out of five.
Jennifer Chapman, Coordinator, Blue Ventures
“Basically, what this means, when we look at the status it’s a combination of four different indicators; coral cover, fleshy macroalgal cover, herbivorous fish biomass and commercial fish biomass. So, when you look at the overall score of the sites, we see that around forty percent of the reef in Belize is in poor condition that means that some of these indicators are not doing very well. In Belize case, the indicators that are really suffering are the commercial fish biomass and fleshy macro-algal cover.”
Roberto Pott, Coordinator, Healthy Reefs
“The things that are doing well are herbivorous fish; coral growth hasn’t gotten worse which is a good sign for us because we lost a lot in the early 2000’s and then we started to see that the commercial species aren’t recovering as fast as we’d like. But the thing of most fleshy macro-algae and we believe that’s related to the management of our agricultural runoff as well as sewage treatment in Belize and that really is heavy costing. There is no way around it; we need to resolve those issues before it gets worst.”
While all is not well, other areas are showing improvement. But, what does it mean for Belize? Research shows that climate change, pollution, overfishing, lack of planning are all factors impacting the condition of our ecosystem.
“The more fleshy macro-algae you have, the less coral…it’s a threat to the corals. It could potentially overgrow corals and so you would end up losing corals. If you don’t have your parrot fish to clean off your reef and clean off your fleshy macro-algae, then you will start losing more reef. And the herbivores might not be enough. We need to solve the problem at the source which is the runoff and sanitation management.”
“The results that you guys presented today is it of great concern, you’d say for all the partners involved and for Belize? Should Belize take it as something very serious?”
“I think there are areas of serious concerns. Fleshy macro-algae is something we cannot lose sight of and we need to take action. Planning is an important part of that. We don’t want to end up with an issue where nobody wants to sewage pond in their backyard. Let’s plan and see where we put that even before we start developing our urban areas. That is a key message for Belize.”
And to address some of these concerns will require a concerted effort by all partners. From education to policy change- the reef needs it.
Beverly Wade, Administrator, Fisheries
“I could tell you that one of the areas the fisheries department is paying keen attention to is the area where they are looking at commercial fin fish. The report card is saying that our numbers have really decreased. It is something that we have to look into. We have a number of legislation that is ready for passage. We have to now go to our policy makers and present a case why we feel that these legislation needs to come in sooner rather than later. So there are a number of areas that we want to look at. One of the recommendations was for us to look at our protected areas network to see how effective it is.”
More Fish are Making the Mesoamerican Reef a Healthier Coral Reef Ecosystem
(Mesoamerican Reef – May 12th, 2015) – The Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative (HRI) released its 2015 Report Card for the Mesoamerican Reef, recording an improvement in reef health from ‘Poor’ in 2012 to ‘Fair’ this year, primarily due to increased fish biomass. The report is based on a new study of 248 coral reef sites along 1000 km of the Caribbean coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras, which were monitored for living coral cover, fleshy macroalgal cover, herbivorous fish biomass (parrots and surgeonfish) and commercially important fish biomass (snappers and groupers). New this year to the Report Card is a collection of detailed indicator maps of coral reef condition on a variety of spatial scales. These new data provide guidance on where to focus conservation actions at the most appropriate management scale.
Overall Health: The overall 2015 MAR Reef Health Index score was ‘fair’ (2.8), on a scale of ‘critical’ (1) to ‘very good’ (5), with encouraging improvements at both the regional level and of individual indicators. Corals – the architects of the reef – have improved since 2006, increasing from 10%-16% cover; although fleshy macroalgae, the main competitors with corals for open reef space, have also increased. Key herbivorous fish continue to increase in numbers and are needed to reduce this macroalgae. Commercial fish have also increased in biomass, which is an encouraging sign, although large groupers are rare and mainly found in fully protected zones of marine protected areas (MPA).
Bringing back big fish: Like many areas of the Caribbean, the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR) has a long history of fishing that has resulted in declining fish populations, especially commercially significant fish like groupers and snappers. However, growing efforts in the MAR region to bring back fish through replenishment areas (=fully protected areas) seem to be working. Based on HRI data of 43 long- term survey sites, fully protected areas had 10 times more snapper and grouper biomass than those within general areas of designated MPAs or reefs with no protection. More large-sized groupers were found in long-established MPAs and areas with additional protection measures. Protecting large fish is important as bigger fish produce more eggs and more eggs produce more fish for the future. “Given the growing scientific concern about coral reefs and the generally declining fish stocks globally – our measureable improvement in the condition of the Mesoamerican Reef, particularly fish populations, is encouraging”, says Dr. Melanie McField, Director of the Healthy Reefs Initiative.
Grazers give a helping hand: The recovery of coral reefs in the MAR region will also depend on the herbivorous fish and urchins who help keep reefs healthy by eating the fleshy macroalgae that can overgrow and kill corals or restrict new coral larvae from settling. This study found parrotfish were abundant throughout the MAR region, although more larger-sized parrotfish, the ones that are often more effective at removing algae, were found mostly in marine protected areas. Efforts to protect herbivorous fish, such as the recently announced fishing ban of parrotfish in Guatemala this past April, are especially important as more herbivores may be able to increase grazing intensity to levels that can shift the balance back towards more coral-dominated reefs. Dr. Jeremy Jackson of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Smithsonian Institution remarked “The exciting news that Guatemala has recently joined Belize and the Bay Islands of Honduras in banning the fishing of parrotfish is another critical step for the long-term conservation and recovery of corals on Mesoamerican reefs. Protecting herbivores of all kinds is critical to this endeavor. Congratulations to the Healthy Reefs Initiative for helping to promote this impressive effort, which I encourage other countries in the Caribbean to follow.”
Protecting Hope Spots: The loss of certain coral species like elkhorn (Acropora palmata) and staghorn (A. cervicornis) corals throughout the Caribbean is a concern as they are the main builders of shallow coral reefs that protect our coastlines from waves and serve as a refuge for other animals. The MAR is home to many large healthy stands of these endangered corals, and several of these reefs are now receiving extra protection to ensure their survival such as Limones Reef in Puerto Morelos, Mexico; Tela Bay, Honduras; and Rotan, Honduras. Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue, recently joined the Healthy Reefs Initiative on a diving research expedition to Honduras and got to see some of these reefs up close. Dr. Earle expressed optimism with regard to the conservation efforts in the Mesoamerican Reef: “You must be doing something right, because here, there are plenty of reasons for hope. Cordelia Banks, off Roatán, Honduras, is one of the best places I have seen, even counting 50 years ago, an amazing stand with acres of staghorn coral.” Dr. Earle explained she really likes the term “Hope Spot” as a concept that suggests that places like these that are protected are really a cause for hope.
A regional effort: Maintaining a healthy and diverse coral reef ecosystem is especially important to the four countries of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras as the reefs support the local economies and culturally rich livelihoods of nearly two million people. The MAR region is a global leader in MPA declaration - all four countries have achieved the target of protecting 20% of their territorial seas. The 45 MPAs in the MAR protect 23,492 km2 of marine area and five new MPAs have been designated since 2011, including a new community supported MPA in Tela, Honduras and an expansion of Hol Chan Marine Reserve from 55 km2 to 441 km2. However, only 3% of the regional territorial sea is under full protection from fishing, including large areas in Banco Chinchorro (Mexico) and Swan Islands (Honduras). The leaders of the four countries, as well as the Healthy Reefs Initiative and more than 60 conservation partners, continue to work to address national and transboundary issues impacting the coral reefs.
Next steps: While there are encouraging signs of improving coral reef health in the MAR, there is still much to do to help coral reefs recover. “We have already taken some important steps in the MAR region – like the protection of herbivorous fish in Belize, the Bay Islands of Honduras and just this year in Guatemala,” said Dr. Melanie McField, Director of the Healthy Reefs Initiative; however, there are other areas that still need to be addressed including: better management of agricultural run-off, adopting more sustainable coastal development practices, properly and adequately treating wastewater and pollution, and encouraging environmentally sustainable and socially responsible business practices in the region. The management recommendations included in this report have been proposed by our partners as the key actions needed over the next two years to improve the reef’s health.”
ABOUT HEALTHY REEFS FOR HEALTHY PEOPLE: HRI is a regional initiative that began in 2004 and now has 65 local, regional and international partner organizations, many of which contributed data for this report. The growing collaboration has not only enriched the quality of information, it has also increased the number of sites being monitored from 130 in 2010, 193 in 2012, to 248 sites in 2015, allowing a better understanding of the overall state of health.
ABOUT THE HEALTHY REEFS FOR HEALTHY PEOPLE REPORT CARDS: The 2015 Report Card for the Mesoamerican Reef is a user-friendly tool, published so that decision makers can have access to the most comprehensive scientific data available. The data guides decision makers in resource management policies, aimed at protecting both the reef and the livelihoods of communities depending on healthy coral ecosystems. The report also enables the evaluation of management actions at a regional scale and puts the concept of ‘adaptive reef management’ into practice. The Healthy Reefs Initiative publishes report cards every two years and previous reports published in 2008, 2010 and 2012 are available online at www.healthyreefs.org.
ABOUT THE MESOAMERICAN REEF: The Mesoamerican Reef extends over 1000 km from the northern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico south to the Bay Islands off the north coast of Honduras, including Guatemala’s Caribbean coast and all Belize, which has the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere.
Extra on reef health:
The condition of reefs varied throughout the region. About 9% of the reefs were in ‘good’ or ‘very good’ condition with key structural and functional components intact. These coral reefs will be important sources of larvae for other reefs and are likely to be more resilient to future disturbances associated with global climate change like warming sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification. While the majority of reefs (~74%) were in “poor” to “fair” condition, they have the potential to shift either towards a trajectory of recovery or decline depending on future disturbances, and most importantly, our ability to minimize human impacts. About 17% of the reefs were in ‘critical’ condition and will require management intervention or restoration to prevent irreversible decline.
Arrecife Mesoamericano - Reporte del Estado de Salud 2015
La puntuación general del Índice de Salud Arrecifal 2015 es 'regular', con mejoras alentadoras, tanto a nivel regional como de indicadores individuales. Los corales - arquitectos del arrecife - han mejorado desde 2006, aumentando de 10%-16% de cobertura. Las macroalgas carnosas, los principales competidores de los corales por espacio arrecifal, casi se han duplicado. Los peces herbívoros clave siguen aumentando en número y se necesitan para reducir estas macroalgas. Los peces comerciales también aumentaron en biomasa, un hecho alentador, aunque los meros grandes son escasos y se encuentran principalmente en zonas totalmente protegidas de AMPs.
Almost 70% of reef in poor to critical condition
Today was reef report card day for Belize, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, and according to Roberto Pott, Belize Coordinator of Healthy Reefs for Healthy People, who unveiled Belize’s score at a press conference held at the Biltmore Plaza Hotel in Belize City this morning, while the health of Belize’s reef has been improving since 2006, it is still categorized as “poor,” primarily because of morass growth in some areas and because the biomass of commercial fish species, such as groupers, has not yet recovered from heavy fishing.
For the other two indicators used to assess reef health, coral cover and herbivorous fish, Belize received a “fair” rating.
Together, the 4 neighboring countries listed above, whose reef system make up what is referred to as the Mesoamerican Reef System, received a reef health index (RHI) score of 2.8 of a possible 5, but Belize’s RHI score was lower, at 2.5. The data indicate that almost 70% of Belize’s reef is in poor to critical condition, while the other 30% or so is in fair to good condition.
Assessments done at 94 sites across the country, including sites at Lighthouse Reef, Glover’s Reef and the Turneffe Atolls, revealed that 21% of these areas are in critical condition, 47% in poor condition, 28% in fair condition and 4% in good condition.
Pott said that although the condition of commercial fish species in Belize is still poor, he believes that a turnaround is possible. He stressed that the marine protected areas continue to serve as an important tool for improving the health of Belize’s reef. According to Pott, 20% of Belize’s territorial seas are under protective status but only 3% are fully protected from fishing.
In detailing the challenges being faced with commercial fish stocks, Pott said that of 700 groupers counted for the study, only 4% of them had a size of over 40 centimeters (for sustainable harvesting). He noted that in areas which were fully protected from fishing, there were ten times more snappers and groupers than in other areas.
Pott also spoke of the other factor for which Belize received a low score: morass growth on the reef. He said that this continues to be a concern and he pointed to the need for attention to be given to how agricultural run-off continues to impact the reef.
The 2015 Report Card for the Mesoamerican Reef, published by Healthy Reefs for Healthy People, said that forest fires resulting from forest destruction linked with Hurricane Richard of 2010 could have resulted in high nutrient loading into the sea, which caused an algal bloom, which, in turn, resulted in deterioration in the health of the reef.
The report says that the growth of algae on the reef has increased 60% since the 2011 survey, and it notes that the situation was especially critical at sites such as Lighthouse Reef and Glovers Reef.
Jennifer Chapman of Blue Ventures, one of Healthy Reef Initiative’s (HRI) partner organizations, pointed to seven recommendations for action. She said that these are seven realistic and achievable things that we all can do and must do to protect the reef. She asked those gathered at the report card launch to pledge to work towards achieving at least one of them.
Fisheries Administrator Beverly Wade said that it is important for stakeholders to take stock of the gaps that exist, as well as the successes, but also to look at where they need to go to improve reef health. She urged advocacy to support the passage of three key fisheries legislation: the Fisheries Bill, the Finfish Bill and the Mangrove Bill.
Wade also said that they are also looking at the expansion of no-take areas to help restore reef health, and they are encouraging sustainable fishing practices and alternative livelihoods for fishers as well.
In a video presentation on the 2015 Report Card, Dr. Melanie McField, Director of Healthy Reefs, said that over 60 agencies have forged an alliance committed to improving the health of the reef. Looking at the regional picture, she said that 34% of the reef sites assessed (248 sites in 45 protected areas) were in fair condition, which, she said, is a 7% rise since the last report. Of the sites assessed, 17% were in a critical condition and may not be able to recover, which, she said, was down by 7% since their last report.
Mesoamerican Race to Protect Parrotfish and the Reef
In a dramatic twist to the typical fishing tournament, this friendly competition among the four countries sharing the Mesoamerican reef (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico) rewards international players who catch less fish and protect more coral reefs. The countries are closing in on the goal of becoming the world’s first ecoregion to achieve full protection of parrotfish, and results published this year show that their efforts are working.
New assessments from the 2015 report card for the Mesoamerican Reef show that parrotfish are increasing, along with the overall reef health. This is good news contrasting some dire predictions that Caribbean reefs might disappear within 20 years.
In April, Guatemala became the region’s newest country to implement a ban on fishing parrotfish, following the example of Belize, which created the first nationwide ban in 2009, and Honduras with a ban in the Bay Islands since 2010.
“This year Guatemala has joined these two countries with a new law protecting the species,” says Marisol Rueda Flores, 33, who works in Mexico with the Healthy Reefs Initiative, the publisher of the Mesoamerican Reef report. “This encouraged Mexico to start with a simple campaign about the importance of parrotfishes in the ecosystem.”
Why are the beautiful birds of the reef such a key to the ecosystem’s rejuvenation? Just as flying birds allow plants to flourish by consuming locusts and other pests, parrotfishes graze and remove pesky algae that can smother corals. It’s a natural battle—a war—of parrotfish versus seaweed.
“We decided to share what has been done and what we need to continue doing to achieve this war against macroalgae and help improve the health of the reef,” says Rueda Flores of the reef report. Fleshy macroalgae is an especially difficult kind of seaweed to control, and lessons from the Mesoamerican Reef system may inspire other regions to protect the tropical fish and urchins that chomp on it.
Based on 149 underwater surveys conducted by partners of the Healthy Reefs Initiative, Honduras has the most herbivorous fish (both parrotfish and surgeonfish), while a protected zone in Mexico is suspiciously in the poorest condition. Partners in Mexico are gaining the support of fishermen and state officials to protect parrotfishes.
“Talking with the leaders of several fishing cooperatives around the state of Quintana Roo, we realized that they used to fish them, and now they don’t find them in the same quantities. I was totally surprised since I didn’t think parrotfishes were commercialized,” says Rueda Flores. “Another big surprise was that some government officials didn’t know about the importance of this species and its role in the marine ecosystem.”
The race to save parrotfish and other algae eaters will certainly be on the agenda in Mexico City this October for the second Economic Forum on Fishing and Aquaculture.
While parrotfish are an important part of the reef restoration equation, reefs also need clean clear water and controlling nutrient pollution is the other side of this complicated equation. So stay tuned for our next blog about HRIs efforts to improve sewage treatment in key areas of the Mesoamerican reef. Learn more about the work of Healthy Reefs for healthy people, and watch the Spanish/English video summary of the Mesoamerican Reef 2015 Report Card.