And on the topic of coral reef health, the Fragments of Hope has been working in several sites for many more years to re-seed devastated reef with resilient and diverse corals farmed in man-made nurseries. Their work has helped to prevent the loss of valuable marine ecosystems and is recognized as one of the region’s most successful reef restoration project with over sixty thousand coral fragments planted. Lisa Carne of Fragments of Hope gave us an update on their coral restoration efforts.
Lisa Carne, Founder & Executive Director, Fragments of Hope
“We started at Laughing Bird Caye National Park so we have been there for over a decade and we expanded to over ten different sites in over four different MPAs. We also began at South Water Caye Marine Reserve and Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve, Gladden Split and Silk Caye Marine Reserves. That is going really well. Those corals are the main reef building or branching corals. These are very fast growing and branching main reef building. They grow in the shallow areas which provide the shoreline protection. The only good news in this whole story are that these corals are unaffected by this new disease. Just to clarify, the main corals that we have been working in out planting for over ten years now these corals luckily do not get this disease. So I think that will be another conclusion that will decide restoration as usual will continue with the coral that are unaffected by the disease. We will send our thoughts on what to do with the corals that we are worried about.”
For the past few weeks, we've been reporting on SCTLD, Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease and the untold damage it can do to Belize's reef.
And, the truth is, the reef has been under attack for decades, from coral bleaching in the early aughts, to the Lionfish invasion which has been going on for about 10 years.
And that's why the concept of Coral Nurseries is so important. It's spearheaded in Belize by marine biologist Lisa Carne out of Placencia and a few months ago in San Pedro we met some kids who have taken up her mantle on their island. They are part of the Kids In Action summer program and they told us about their Coral reef restoration program and coral nursery:
Brittney Garbutt - Instructor, Coral Nursery "With the coral nursey which is a restoration project where we have 3 of the most endangered species of coral and we're trying our best to restore them, grow them and out plant them to keep them alive. So far, we are quite successful with the growth and it's just waiting a little bit more for the corals to grow until we can plant them out there. The 3 corals we're dealing with are of the acropora genus, the species of them are the Elkhorn, the Staghorn and the Fused Staghorn. Now these 3 corals are kind of like the frame builders of the reef, so once they start building up, they actually bring in more coral, we ended up with brain coral and pillar corals too, they just popped up. There's a disease that affects these particular corals, kind of like bleaching but it's called white band disease, only affects these 3 corals and it whipped out quite a bit of them, so what we have now is all that we have now. So, to prevent from being completely gone, remember these are the frame builders of the reef, so if you want to think of it like a foundation of a house, they're the foundation, you start bottom up. If you remove the bottom of the house, it crumbles. These guys are the frame of the reef, so without them, it's a problem right because we have them here for now, what if they don't exist 10, 20 years down the road? We're here to make sure what we have now, lasts for the rest of the generation."
Liandra Bodden "The cleaning of the corals is like I said how special they are to marine life. It was something pretty to see, even though the fishes got together like down there. They know that it's a big role, so they all gathered together and protect the coral; it was like something really beautiful and awesome. It's something that I do see myself doing in the future; I have a big passion for marine life and would love to see my future grow."
That interview was conducted in July.
Brittney Garbutt is now pursuing her degree in marine biology at UB.
Fragments of Hope reseeding and replanting Belize’s reef Fragments of Hope is a non-profit community-based organization that has been working to respond to coral reef challenges by re-seeding and re-planting the reef with diverse and resilient corals. There are many threats to coral reefs, including intense hurricanes, warm ocean temperatures, plastic pollution, development and sewage. These have degraded Belize’s barrier reef over time causing us to lose live coral covers. But Fragments of Hope has been working to show that planting corals can help reefs to rebound when it loses coral cover in some areas. We went out to Laughing Bird Caye to find out more about their work. Here’s part one of reporter’s Andrea Polanco story with Fragments of Hope.
Andrea Polanco, Reporting
This is what the Belize Barrier Reef looks like to most of us – vibrant, corals of different shapes and sizes, teeming with marine life. It’s a beauty to behold. But marine conservationists and those who use the reef daily will tell you that there are large areas of that look like this – empty of color – just white skeletons – those are corals that have bleached because of warm ocean temperatures this year. Marine researchers are still compiling data from the 2019 bleaching surveys – but from a look at these graphs – the bleaching this year seems to surpass 2017’s bleaching event at almost every site surveyed. This year, the bleaching event is severe and lasts longer – but there is still hope for some of Belize’s corals.
Lisa Carne, Founder, Fragments of Hope
“This year, it is pretty bad again. Last year it wasn’t so bad. 2017 was not a good year for bleaching. And some of the out planted corals are not bleaching and that is what we term resilient – or resistant rather because they are not even bleaching and then some that are bleaching seem to recover in a month or two and we call those resilient because they are sort of bouncing back but even if they bounce back, the bleaching still affects the corals. It slows their growth rate, and their reproduction ability.”
The bleaching stress level jumped from a 1.7 level between 1985-2014 to a 3 or severe level in 2014-2017 within Belize’s coral reefs – it almost doubled in the span of just two years which shows just how serious this threat is. But it’s just one of the many stressors on coral reefs in Belize. In 2001, a hurricane hit southern Belize and caused a lot of damage on land – but there was even more devastation on the reefs. Laughing Bird Caye was almost totally destroyed – until Lisa Carne, founder of Fragments of Hope, had an idea while in San Pedro.
“I saw some broken Elkhorn or aquapora palmatta but still living and loose in the sand and sea grass. So, I thought, hmmm, what if we could just put these back would be able to reforest the reefs like they do on land?”
In 2006, they selected out plant and nursery sites. Fragments of Hope was on a mission to reseed and replant coral sites to help the reef recover. They started here at Laughing Bird Caye where Lisa and her team found dying corals.
“When we came out here there was less than six percent live coral cover and there was only two elkhorn natural colonies around this caye and one natural patch of staghorn about this big. Iris and bleaching events and other disease events had killed off almost everything.”
This is what it looked like back in the early 2000’s – dead rubble everywhere. There’s still evidence of that massive coral die-off, but Fragments of Hope has done massive restoration work around the caye – with lots of success.
“One of the oldest sites from 2018 had over fifty-percent coral cover starting from less than six percent in 2010. So to give you reference, that is pretty fast; six and a half years forty-percent increase, right?”
And corals that Fragments of Hope planted are growing rapidly. They have monitored the growth of other corals on the reef – and the difference is astounding.
“In 2006, the average coral live cover was eleven percent and then last year 2018, which is twelve years later it had increased to only sixteen percent. So, by only five percent in about fourteen years and about forty percent in six and a half years – that gives you an idea of how quickly these corals are growing and what a difference we can make with some intervention.”
Growth rate varies for the corals – they grow faster in the southern part of Belize. Carne says that regional data shows that the corals planted in the Laughing Bird Caye sites are outgrowing those in Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Florida. So far, Fragments of Hope has out planted over eighty thousand corals. They’ve planted a number of species – as well as cross species – these hybrids with a unique shape make for a great underwater attraction. There has been growing interesting in the hybrid corals because they may be more resilient to bleaching and they are tougher to be targeted by predators. But Fragments of Hope has been working with these corals, primarily in the shallow patches of the reef because they provide critical shoreline protection. A healthy reef also provides habitat for marine critters and supports tourism activities – all social and economic benefits for Belize. But these corals can only do so much.
“The coral restoration that we are doing here is no remedy for climate change. It is just a response that we came up with as a temporary band-aid to bring back the areas that we want to see them but if we don’t stop as a global entity to stop emitting all the things we are emitting, then it is just a temporary fix.”
Investing in Nature, Investing in the Future of Belize
Turneffe Atoll, BELIZE - Natasha Gibson is a licensed scuba diver, tour guide, and more recently, coral reef conservationist. She and her colleagues at the Belizean non-profit Fragments of Hope are now researching and practicing various methods to replant more resilient types of coral that can be used to restore some of Belize’s reefs, which are suffering from rising sea temperatures, pollution, and habitat destruction.
“It’s like propagating a regular plant,” explains Natasha, lighting up as she describes her work. “We take starts of old coral and use them like seedlings. It blew my mind. It was incredible to see that we can actually grow back these corals.”
Belize boasts the second largest barrier reef in the world, and the largest coral reef system in the Western Hemisphere. Coral reefs are critically important ecosystems, believed to hold the highest biodiversity of any type of habitat. The Belize Barrier Reef, a UNESCO natural World Heritage site, hosts several internationally protected and threatened marine species, including hawksbill turtles and West Indian manatees. But coral reefs aren’t just important for biodiversity; coral reefs also help prevent coastal erosion, offer protection from storm surges and hurricanes, and support jobs ranging from fishing to tourism. Now however, the Belize Barrier Reef, its biodiversity, and the critical jobs and protection roles it plays, are being threatened by environmental and human activities. Overharvesting of marine resources has been a challenge, exacerbated by the impacts of climate change.
The government and communities of Belize have recognized how critical the biodiversity of the reef is for their future. Belizean people, highly sensitized to life by the sea, have noticed changes, including decreased fish catch and coral bleaching from rising sea temperatures.
The World Bank Marine Conservation and Climate Adaptation Project (MCCAP) for Belize, financed by the Adaptation Fund, aims to enhance marine conservation and climate adaptation measures to strengthen the climate resilience of the Belize Barrier Reef system, among others. This includes improvement of the coral reef protection through expanded marine protected areas and coral outplanting, like Natasha and her colleagues are doing.
As she also works as a tour guide, along with many of her colleagues, Natasha recognizes how critical the work being done to restore the reefs is for her income as a guide. “I take pride in planting corals. If we don’t continue to do this, it’s all gonna go someday. We don’t want it to stop here.”
The project aims not only to restore and conserve biodiversity but to support diversification of livelihoods to ease pressures on ecosystems and ensure the environmental protection measures can be implemented by local communities who in turn add to their income streams. This includes support to sectors such as hospitality and tourism, vocational education, and sustainable agriculture and raising awareness about the importance of the overall health of the reef ecosystem to climate resilience and community welfare.
Kieron Xiu, a teacher at Chunox Secondary School is teaching students, the children of fisherfolk, at an agriculture and science vocational school, so that they have other options to think differently about fishing when they grow up. “Climate change and overfishing is causing a problem. Therefore, we need to diversify from fishing, to other opportunities such as sustainable agriculture.” Many graduates of the school go on not only to work in agriculture, but also to study chemistry, biology, and other sciences. In other parts of the country the MCCAP project is training tour guides, supporting improvements to homestay facilities, setting up greenhouses for organic farmers, and sending people from fishing communities to train for service industries. The health of the Belize Barrier Reef is crucial for the country – the reef supports fishing industries and livelihoods for communities. The tourism sector, in which diving and snorkeling play a key role, is estimated to contribute over 40% of GDP including both direct and indirect contributions (IMF, 2019). Across the country, communities are doing their part to restore and protect this critical resource, with support for the MCCAP Project. Here in Belize, investing in nature means investing in people.
Quick teaser on Fragments of Hope Rescue nurseries set up in Hol Chan & Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve as an emergency response to Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) May 2020 with a focus on pillar corals.
Assisted Shallow Reef Acroporid Recovery in Belize "Is it possible for us to leave planet Earth better off for our having been here?" Dr. Peter Glynn's closing remarks after a full day of marine science dedicated to his career.
Creatures that rely on Healthy Reefs in Belize 14 Dec 2019 All these critters seen today 14 Dec 2019 at GSSCMR. It was not a 'routine trip' as we do not usually need bleaching surveys in December in Belize. Not shown is the amount of corals still bleaching , the amount of corals recently dead from bleaching, the horrific amount of plastic and garbage in the sea today and side effects from bad fishing practices.
Severe Bleaching in Southern Belize Bleaching severe in southern Belize Oct 18, 2019. Note elkhorn not bleaching! From Gladden Spit and the Silk Cayes Marine Reserve aka the 'elbow'
Dave Gulko visits Fragments of Hope in Belize 14 Oct 2019 Dave Gulko's feedback from his visit to LBCNP on 12 Oct 19.