The causes of the rapid decline of our once healthy Turneffe Atoll
Author: Trevor Vernon
Last week I wrote a piece for the Amandala called “Your Barrier Reef is in major trouble, Belize”. A group of journalists had been invited by Healthy Reefs Initiative of the Smithsonian Institute to take a tour of Turneffe Atoll and I got invited because of old ties to the writers’/journalists’ community.
Being most appreciative of the invite and fatigued with the partisan constitutional amendment hoopla, I gladly accepted it for a change of pace. This turned out to be an intensely educational outing; and what I experienced made me recommit myself to writing about the plight of our marine environment, especially out at the last under-protected Belizean atoll.
I decided it was time to let the lawyers/politicians figure out constitutional amendment stuff and deal with what used to be most intimately familiar.
So this week, under pressure to follow up, it’s time to focus on the factors or stressors that, in the aggregate, are taking such an adverse toll on our reef generally and our Turneffe Atoll specifically. No rest for the wicked, no escape, no relaxing Saturday tour without consequences.
According to the research (private interviews & published materials), there appears to be any number of stressors on the reef environment. There are some that we, as individuals, cannot do much about that has direct adverse impact; but, there are others we can make one hell of a difference with, if we truly still believe in this “wealth untold blessing” we keep hearing about.
We can’t accept anything for granted anymore and must fight for what is important to us on all fronts, because we can’t expect government to do everything.
Some root-causes include human population growth, global dependence on fossil fuels, higher water temperatures, and contamination that as individuals we can’t do much about. The direct coral killers are high temperatures - causing coral bleaching and sometimes death and coral diseases.
More indirect/ecological effects are as a result of poor land management in watersheds, land clearing, lack of riparian buffers, overuse of chemicals in agriculture and aquaculture, which stimulated the phytoplankton blooms we are currently witnessing from Belize City southwards. The stuff we cannot do much about include but is not limited to:
1) Disposing of raw and semi-treated sewerage in large quantities, like from foreign vessels outside the reef beyond three miles. Only our government can change that and we have little or no influence over what successive governments will sign away to keep the cruise ship industry happy.
2) Disposal of raw or semi-treated sewerage into lakes and lagoons like from WASA that ends up being leaked into the sea, inside the reef. Yes, there were mangrove buffers before the port was privatized but that is now history and we have to deal with reality. The mangrove areas around the ponds near the port have been privatised and were themselves liquidated. Can’t do much here either. Players way too big in the City! And I won’t even touch waste disposal treatment in the districts. It’s just too frightening.
3) Massive decline of sea urchins (we call them sea eggs) since the 1980’s for some unknown reason. But, it has been generally accepted to have been caused by a vicious unidentified virus triggered by over-population. They are coming back slowly in Belize. I saw proof of them being nursed back to health at Foreman’s Caye by Mr. Vic himself.
4) OVERFISHING: Drastic decline of parrot fish population, which was being taken commercially due to a phenomenon known as “fishing down the food chain”. Government took the bold decision to ban the taking of all parrot fish. Kudos to the Barrow administration, they are coming back too. This specie is important to keeping things in balance. They may even eat the green algae that are clogging up the reef.
5) OVERFISHING: Drastic decline in sea cucumbers (locally known as sea cocks) - being consumed and exported by some in the local far east community. And they are important reef dwellers to keep things clean. Well, those local folks with their insatiable demand for these resources could check themselves before they wreck our reef system.
6) Developers/foreign investors using coral from the reef for construction (we saw first-hand on Cockroach Caye in Turneffe and have photo documentary proof). Only government bodies can stop these people with better enforcement but I hesitate to blame DOE or any one agency. Enforcement gets very very costly. It has been suggested that Coast Guard be strengthened to do some more enforcement in this area. Coast Guard does great work already, enforcement-wise.
7) Exponential growth of green algae along our coast from the mouth of Haulover running south past Placencia. This phenomenon is documented by foreign satellite imagery measuring “Chlorophyll A concentrations”. It’s way too high. We think we can’t do anything about it but scientists simply haven’t done enough research to look at the causes. They may wish to start by looking at the dams at the start of the rain season.
8) Vessels crashing into the reef directly over time and run off without paying their fines. We can’t do much about that as individuals but Government certainly can make some noise through our missions in the capitals where the culprits originate from.
9) Massive dredging by developers right up against the reef (we have photos to show from Turneffe and elsewhere). Dredging causes all sorts of adverse effects on the reef environment. Books have been written about this. Many books. Dredging is bad for reef wellness unless heavily supervised by qualified people. Only the government and the local dredging companies and other local counterparts can do anything about this. The stuff/ factors/stressors we can and could influence:
We can make sure we, the citizens of this jewel, refrain from participating in any way in the following activities, and where feasible, cautiously report them if only to morning call-in shows:
10) Lionfish invasion will require active citizenship participation to bring under control. We can ask for it when we go out to eat. Lionfish fillett is quite good. We could ask those who come to sell us undersized lobster for lionfish and offer to pay a premium. The restaurants should be encouraged to serve lionfish. Lionfish is a bad predator new to our area and they are decimating fish stock.
11) Use of gill nets right up against the reef, spawning and aggregation sites, mouths of rivers, lagoons, and such. The Government has new regulations that prohibit some gill net activity and they should be congratulated again for their foresight and proactive measures.
12) Boats anchor on top of coral formation, all the time. We can make sure when we are in boats that the
captain does not operate the vessel in such a way as to damage the corals around the reef specifically. We should refrain from anchoring on or near the reef, taking corals and other items for trophies, excessive touching of the fauna, standing on the corals and other items like sponges and such.
13) Developers who blow holes in the reef to better access to their property must be held to account for causing damage. Not because you buy an island means you can blow it up. This isn’t Vegas. Each and every one of our islands form part of our priceless marine ecosystem and owners must be made to understand this, local and foreign owners alike...no exceptions.
14) We can all refuse to buy illegal and undersized and out-of-season marine products like lobster, conch, grouper, and yes sea cucumbers at severely discounted prices. We are hurting ourselves when we buy or even partake in consumption of these items.
15) Excessive dumping of expended plastic and Styrofoam containers, including soda and water bottles. Our participation is very simple and most effective here: stop buying sodas, rum, beer, cooking oil ect in plastic bottles. If there is a glass container option for whatever you are buying/consuming stay away from plastics, period. Its healthy not just for our marine environment but for all our ecosystems.
16) Finally, we need to stop cutting down mangrove of all types especially if the mangrove root is under water at high tide. Cutting mangrove at the perimeter of a caye/island or on the coast is an absolute no-no. If you have to thin out the trees don’t chop them down, merely prune them so they grow higher with very little leaves on the bottom and bushy at the top. This lets the breeze through and maintains the protection of the very land you are trying to maintain. In the case of the privatised Port of Belize, the mangroves served a much bigger purpose, to help absorb the nutrients from the semi treated dumped sewerage. Now those are gone and sewer treatment becomes a huge health problem for the Yarborough and Port Loyola Residents who are now facing some of the highest levels of e-coli bacteria in all of the Americas.
Before closing I am advised to add a more refined statement on the condition of our reef as a whole, thusly: you might say 65% of the Belize reef is compromised (in critical and poor condition) vs 9% in good and very good shape...and 26% on the fence in so-so shape.
In closing, it must be reiterated that there are many things we can do individually and collectively to fight for the health of our reef system because it does have the potential for truly endless supply of “wealth untold” if properly managed. And, it would be a good initiative to gently remind our elected representatives of our priorities and congratulate them for their recent efforts in this regard. Amandala