The Hidden Treasures of the Coast

The presence of the world's second largest coral reef is not the only factor contributing to Belize's rich and diverse coastal environment. The entire coastline of Belize is also marked by coastal lagoons, estuaries, and wetlands, ecosystems that are among the most fertile and productive in Belize. Despite the considerable ecological value of these areas, they are often taken for granted and neglected.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
Belize's mainland coastal topography, characterized by lagoons and estuaries, is in large part due to the presence of the coral reef. As the reef evolved, so did lagoons. Estuaries (or coastal wetlands) often extend from lagoons and form when fresh water flows from the land and mixes with salt water from the sea. These areas are very productive due to the high density of phytoplankton, benthic microflora (algae), and macroflora (sea grasses, mangroves), primary producers that provide food for many animals. Estuaries and lagoons provide habitat for threatened species, such as manatees, crocodiles, and some species of birds. Ambergris Caye, in fact, is composed of ecologically valuable wetlands that provide critical habitat for many endangered bird species. Wetlands, in general, are particularly important because they act like a giant sponge, absorbing large amounts of water during rains, thus slowing down the process of flooding. Due to vegetation such as sea grass, these ecosystems are capable of trapping sediments and toxins from terrestrial run-off that would otherwise damage the coral reef and other fragile habitats. Moreover, mangroves are often a component of lagoons and wetlands and act to naturally create a physical barrier to inland areas, providing protection from storm surges.

As with other coastal ecosystems, land-based activities pose a major threat towards lagoons, estuaries, and wetlands. Areas altered by housing development or agricultural expansion are impacted either directly by the destruction of mangroves and/or beaches, or indirectly with the introduction of agrochemicals into the sediment. As a result of these pollutants and industrial effluent, water quality tends to be negatively effected. Dredging and sand mining activity exacerbates the problem of poor water quality by resuspending sediments that often contain an accumulation of toxins.

Despite the numerous threats facing lagoons and estuaries, there is some encouraging news. Green Reef recently attended a workshop that addressed ways to more efficiently collect data in river and coastal systems of Belize. There is currently a lack of information detailing how severely these ecosystems are impacted by human activity, such as development. For these ecosystems to be effectively protected, further research, such as identifying contaminant pathways in rivers, needs to be conducted. Hopefully, scientists and researchers throughout Belize will take a vested interest in these essential coastal ecosystems. In the meantime, Green Reef will do its part to watch over the lagoons, estuaries, and wetlands in and around Ambergris Caye.

Check out Reef Brief next week when we will look at one of the estuaries most famous inhabitants, the manatee.

This Reef Brief was written by Ann Hayden.

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