Reef assessment favorable

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 10, No. 43            November 23, 2000

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The reef looks great - a lot better than it did after Hurricane Mitch; there's even new growth of some branch corals," commented Miguel Alamilla Jr., Manager of Hol Chan Marine Reserve. This was in response to questions this week on the condition of Ambergris Caye's biggest asset-the barrier reef.

    Mr. Alamilla has performed assessments on the lee side of the island, Bacalar Chico and Hol Chan Marine Reserve since the hurricane. He stated overall damage was minimal. From his accounts, in the fore reef, the hill and valley part where most of the diving takes place, visibility was at about 50 feet, two weeks after the storm. Further information learned from more recent divers say that visibility has greatly improved since then. The reserve manager then explained he saw new colonies of stag horn coral with about one foot of growth in spots where it had been obliterated by Hurricane Mitch just two years ago. This was encouraging, since stag horn and elk horn, both branch corals, are very fragile with stag horn being almost an endangered species. Mr. Alamilla continued saying that the fish, sharks and rays have not decreased in numbers, stating he observed a Jew Fish in the reserve just the day before, a rare sighting. He noticed a significant amount of sand erosion in the Bacalar Chico National Park, (a World Heritage Site). He explained this was due to storm surge as well as the damage to soft corals located there, such as the uprooted sea fans and plumes.

Speaking specifically about Hol Chan (Mayan for "little channel") reserve, Mr. Alamilla said he had done an assessment about a month ago. He noticed more damage was done by a boat breaking up, approximately 400 meters north of the cut. The manager explained that a 40 foot catamaran that had been anchored south of the island in Boca Chica was dragged by the hurricane to the point mentioned. "This boat broke apart on the reef, damaging more coral than the storm," he commented.

    The fact that Hurricane Keith came from the back side of the island had adverse effects on that side of the island. This area of reef is obviously much more shallow and therefore the corals were affected from the wave action. Mr. Alamilla stated that the surge overturned boulder corals which is a feat in itself. He observed several broken elk horn corals as well. When questioned on the state of the mangrove, the manager commented that those in the reserve would recover sooner than the ones in the San Pedrito area which were heavily damaged.

    Hol Chan personnel are currently trying to catch up from the set backs incurred by Hurricane Keith. The roof of their office building was destroyed which damaged many of their files, posters and their Visitor's Center. Additionally, three boats and engines were damaged and their dock needed replaced. Problems with their only computer added to their challenges, but they have tackled tasks one by one and things are finally being restored to normal. Part of this restoration is being funded by grants from Oak Foundation of the US and the World Wildlife Fund.

    Fifty new mooring buoys complete with shackles and ropes have been purchased through a grant from Project Aware, sponsored by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). Placement of these buoys is being coordinated with the help of the San Pedro Tour Guide Association. Part of these are replacing old mooring buoys and some are being installed in new locations. Six additional buoys will join the existing six at Shark/Ray Alley totaling twelve new buoys at this popular reserve attraction. Marking buoys that designate reserve boundaries are also being replaced.

    As if this were not enough, Hol Chan continues to assess the Marine Reserve, zoning it into smaller measured sections and assessing it in more detail. They have already cleared the reef of three boats full of garbage and debris. The staff has also created a new brochure with the aid of a grant from the World Conservation Union, who have also funded new information booklets (still in draft stage) to be used by local tour guides.

    Besides the manager, Hol Chan's staff consists of three rangers, Edgar Badillo, Grimaldo Acosta and Antonio Calderon; Biologist/ Peace Corp volunteer Brandon Kitawaga and Administrative Assistant Heider Perez. Hol Chan continues to work hard preserving their part of one of Belize's most precious natural resources. Anyone wishing to offer assistance, may contact them at (501) 26-2247, fax 26-2420 or e-mail
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