The Caribbean coral
reef system is the first marine ecosystem in the world to collapse. Other coral reefs and
ecosystems across the world will also collapse unless we act
"a complete collapse of coral reefs in
the Caribbean, including the Belizean Barrier reef, is the first record of the collapse
of an entire regional marine ecosystem" IUCN,
Artificial coral reefs provide huge economic returns for minimal
investment, provide employment and skill training for local communities, and can conserve
endangered corals see Artificial coral
The Belizean Barrier
Reef is the second largest barrier coral reef in the world.
Its value for
tourism and the challenge of its conservation places Belize in a position to become a leader
in coral reef protection and management.
Besides their exceptional beauty
and high biodiversity, coral reefs are valuable for many
reefs boost tourism dollars to local communities and support fish
also build the keys, and protect coastal development from waves, tsunami's, and
Coral reefs provide nesting sites
for turtles and birds
Below: The keys low
height above sea level, closeness to the reef, and often sandy soil make them particularly
threatened by hurricanes. Images by Peter Janzen.
Although the major tourist resorts
retain their traditional Caribbean lifestyle they also support an increasing number of western
style homes and businesses. This puts stress on the keys fragile ecosystem that besides reef also
includes seagrass and mangroves.
Our collaborator ACES works to protect the American crocodile on
Ambergris Cay and offers visitors the opportunity to join with them in their release or rescue
The cays behind the reef provide nesting
habitat to a wide variety of sea and land birds.
These birds make important contributions to the health of the
reef by concentrating nutrients in
mangrove forests. Mangroves prevent erosion, provide habitat for juvenile fish
and many other species, and improve water quality through increasing nutrients
and cleaning silt from water.
On Ambergris Cay dozens of frigate birds come
around the jetty when fish are cleaned. They have wingspan's of 7 foot (2.3
meters) and make spectacular
dives close to the pier to the delight of tourists. The cleaning of fish also attracts very large stingrays
that glide over the seagrass.
EXTENSIVE LOSS OF
There has been an extensive loss of coral in the Caribbean over the last 40 years.
For example, the coral cover of the Belizean barrier reef is only one tenth of its original cover,
and less than 5-7% compared with 50-70% in the 1970's. Similar loss of coral to that on the
Belizean barrier reef is apparent throughout the
|Dead and broken coral on the Belizean
barrier reef. Image Peter Janzen.
||Coral regrowth on Belizean barrier
reef. Image Peter Janzen.
The loss of coral is
also occurring in the Indian Ocean and with the Australian Great Barrier Reef. In the Indian Ocean
some 500 to 1000 year old corals have died due to warmer water and increasing ocean
This crisis has resulted in the International Union
for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declaring "a complete collapse of coral reefs in the Caribbean -
the first record of the collapse of a regional marine ecosystem".
|The coral reefs of Belize and the
Caribbean are central to tourism, incuding diving and fishing. We should identify
the causes of their loss and then prevent them. Images Peter Janzen.
CAUSES OF CORAL
Sea Urchins in the
1970's - Beginning the decline in coral cover was massive mortality among sea urchins
in the 1970s, possibly caused by human introduced disease. Sea urchins eat algae and other
plants on the bare parts of the reef. Less sea urchins meant a lot more algae and other
plants, and these stop new coral covering the bare patches.
Hurricane damage 1998- 2000
- The reefs were still
fairly intact until 1995-1997 where the older fishermen describe the abundant coral. Hurricane
Mitch in October 1998, and two years later tropical
storm Chantal and hurricane Keith damaged the reef so much that it has never
recovered. The damage was direct physical destruction combined with very high silt
loads. Now where there was clean sand the bottom is silty and sometimes putrid, through the
hurricanes and subsequent river siltation and local development.
fishing - The loss of grazer species such as
parrotfish or surgeon fish allow algae to out compete coral for anchorage on the
Warmer water - Predicted ocean temperature increases from global warming cause coral
to bleach and die and may massive loss of coral reefs over the next few
decades. Coral bleaching occurs when plants (algae) that
live inside coral leave because of warm water. The corals go white and eventually die.
Coastal fishing villages like Sarteneja
will be particularly vulnerable to climate warming because of the loss of marine resources and
rising ocean levels.
waters - The atmospheric increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) levels has
resulted in increased acidity of oceanic waters.
Pollution - Corals are
very sensitive to water pollution from chemicals or silt. To protect the Australian Great Barrier
Reef many harmful chemicals used for sugar or banana production have been restricted or banned.
Tourist facilities need to make sure that no pollutants enter the ocean.
Warmer water and
other factors combined - Temperature-induced mass coral bleaching started when atmospheric CO2 levels
exceeded 320 ppm. When CO2 levels reached 340 ppm, sporadic but highly destructive mass bleaching
occurred in most reefs world-wide. At today’s level of 387 ppm, allowing a lag-time of 10 years for
sea temperatures to respond, most reefs world-wide are committed to an irreversible
Mass bleaching will in
future become annual - If CO2 levels reach 450 ppm (due to occur by 2030–2040 at the current
rates), reefs will be in rapid and terminal decline world-wide from
multiple factors including mass bleaching, ocean acidification, and other
environmental impacts. If CO2 levels reach 600 ppm reefs will be eroding geological
Ocean level rises - Even
small rises in ocean levels can effect coastal communities. Higher ocean levels combined with
loss of coral will mean greater wave action, tidal and storm flows, and
flooding during high tides.
The future - The major threat to reefs are increasing atmospheric CO2 levels that promote
global warming and ocean acidification. The negative effects of both can be slowed by
reduction in the use of fossil fuels, deforestation, and burning. see Forest carbon
storage and Soot and global
- Marine protected areas can reduce
the pressure of over fishing.
- Grazing fish make bare areas for
the coral to grow, and the taking of these fish is banned in Belize and many other
- As marine environments change,
and fishing catches decrease, local communities can develop sustainable lifestyles through
developing alternative economic activities. These include activities such as Agriculture, Tourism, Development, Niche Products,