If you’ve gone snorkeling or diving off the coast of Placencia, there’s a good chance that you visited the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve. It is a popular tourist site because it offers some of the best diving and snorkeling experiences in Belize. But outside of its touristic appeal, this protected area serves as a site for fish spawning aggregations and specific zones are designated for commercial fishing. The Silk Cayes are three tiny, sandy islands that are an integral part of the reserve – but these cayes are being threatened by erosion. Conservationists say the primary cause appears to be climate change that has affected the wave movements that are now swallowing up the cayes. Reporter Andrea Polanco travelled to South Silk Caye on Tuesday to find out more about the impact of the erosion and what’s being done to save it from being washed away. Here’s that story.

Andrea Polanco, Reporting

Science Ranger Wilbert Castillo of the Southern Environmental Association is hard at work helping to set up a rock wall around South Silk Caye. He and his co-workers have set up a partial boundary to hold back some of the waves from crashing into the caye.

Wilbert Castillo, Science Ranger, SEA

“I used to hear about the Silk Cayes, back when I was child, and sad enough when I got the chance to see it, it was a little bit larger than this, so I would like to see it in its original shape and form; how it once was.”

South Silk Caye is one of the three Silk Cayes located just off the coast of Placencia. These small cayes form a part of the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve. It is a popular tourist site and it generates revenue for the country, as well as the co-manager, SEA, to do its conservation work. But over the last ten years, the sea has been eating away at these cayes. For the past five years or so, South Silk Caye has been eroding at a rapid rate. With just a strip of land mass left, gulls and hermit crabs now have to compete with visitors for use of this caye.

Wilbert Castillo

“I have seen many changes. I have seen the island change its shape in terms of the weather conditions, like the wind. I have seen the solid portion of the island being eroded during the rough weather. I have also seen the loss of coconut trees. For example, one coconut tree might not sound like a lot to you but on the Silk Caye does a lot to hold the land together. It lowers the carrying capacity of the island. We can’t hold as many guests that we would like to. It also puts the bathroom at risk because the island begins to erode from the east side, then in no time we won’t have the space to put the rest room.  In my first year working here, the laughing gulls come to nest here during the summer time. I’ve seen a lot more laughing gulls in my first year as opposed to second year of working here.  If the island is getting small, then we have more and more human activity in the area, so that makes it hard for the birds to nest.”

Fisherman and Seaweed Farmer, Lowell ‘Japs’ Godfrey knows the value of this site. But for ‘Japs’ and others who come here frequently, the receding shoreline and toppled trees have turned this caye into a shadow of what it once was. Just in 2016, this tourist-captured video shows a bigger, different South Silk Caye. Conservationists say that over seventy-five percent of what was South Silk Caye is now all gone. The major culprit is climate change. Executive Director of PACT Nayari Diaz Perez has visited this caye countless times; she is astounded by the changes.

Nayari Diaz Perez, Executive Director, PACT

“It is very shocking! I have been coming here over the last decade. Ten years ago when you came out here erosion had already started however the rate of that erosion has increased in recent years. I would say within the last five years the erosion has increased significantly. I was here a couple months ago and the caye looked different. That used to be a two stall bathroom facing that side of the island. That bathroom was built by PACT many years ago – as well as the other tourism infrastructure that you see here. If you look at it now, it has been downsized to a one stall bathroom that had to be turned facing the other side of the island basically because there is no beach on that side anymore.”

Andrea Polanco

“What exactly is causing this erosion out here?”

Nayari Diaz Perez

“It is a lot of science, but basically, it has a lot to do with the wave action that is a result of the changing dynamics of the ocean; of course that stems from climate change.”

Just across is Middle Silk Caye. It is a privately leased caye that is quickly disappearing. And conservationists don’t want that to happen to South Silk Caye. It is a grim picture, but conservationists know that if it is not addressed, erosion will take with it the social and economic value of this caye. The Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve receive as many as ten thousand tourists every year.

Arreini Palacio, Executive Director, SEA

“We would absolutely lose a brilliant destination that has some of the most beautiful dive sites, snorkel sites right around here, in proximity of the south silk caye. It is an income earner for several people in the surrounding areas and if we lose it, it will be livelihood lost for several of our stakeholders.”

Nayari Diaz Perez

“The reality is that if something is not done now and the necessary resources, financial and otherwise, are not invested in the island, we might be here a couple months down this year and not have an island.”

Andrea Polanco

“And if that is gone?”

Nayari Diaz Perez

“Then we lose tourism; we lose commercial fish species; we lose an entire ecosystem.”

For the past few years, conservationists have been working to prevent that from happening here at South Silk Caye.  PACT and SEA have been erecting this rock wall to keep the waves from washing away the caye and they say they’ve seen some positive results. But a lot more work needs to be done before they can reclaim South Silk Caye. So to fund the works, on Tuesday PACT and SEA signed an agreement with the GETCH Foundation. Over the next two years, the foundation will be investing almost one million Belize dollars in southern Belize – a big part of that funding will be used to construct a submerged wall that is designed to break up incoming waves and capture sand – the funding will help to counter erosion and rebuild South Silk Caye to improve visitors’ experience.

Nayari Diaz Perez

“In the initial stages what have been the preliminary findings is that we can build a rock wall about five feet high and that will allow a lot of the sand to come back. If you look around the island, you will see that the sand has spread out and so it hasn’t really disappeared and so we are going to put measures in place to retain the sand and build back the beach.”

Jesse Robinson, Executive Director, GETCH Foundation

“They are very simple. It is not a complex system to build these walls. It doesn’t require expensive technology or hardware. You can see these are simple rock walls built with dead corals and rocks around the island. It is extremely effective in re-growing the sand banks on these islands. You can see how quickly the work that you put into it brings results.”

Arreini Palacio

“We have over eleven thousand visitors that come to visit every year and it is hard for them to have a good beach day or to sit and eat their lunch because a lot of people are coming on to the island at one time so expanding the island is absolutely going to be useful for us.”

The project will start with an erosion study within the next month, after which they will get clearances for the works to take place within the marine reserve and once that is complete, the land reclamation process starts to rescue South Silk Caye. Reporting for News Five, I’m Andrea Polanco.

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