University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Coral in the Crossfire
Belize’s future is intimately tied to its coral reefs. Both are in jeopardy.
By Drew Wayland
Mordy Mis stands on the shore of Tom Owens Caye, a one-acre island halfway between Belize and Honduras. On a clear day he can see 25 miles, to the ridgeline of the Maya Mountains, some of Central America’s highest peaks. Most days, though, the 26-year-old is surrounded only by open ocean, silver and blue waves stretching endlessly in every direction.
In the tide pool at his feet, two nurse sharks, the Caribbean’s most docile predators, are circling the carcass of a lionfish. Mis snaps a picture, records a video and watches the sharks with a knowing smile.
“I take videos for my daughter, to show and document these things,” he says. “She looks forward to when I come home and show her something beautiful like this.”
Mis looks back out to the sea, where thousands of coral sit silently beneath the clear water.
“My greatest fear in life,” he says, “is that one of these days, all this…the mountains, the reef, will become a distant memory. It will be a picture we show our kids and say, this is what we had, but because of our stupidity, it’s gone.”
Mis lives on the caye during the week, where he works as a dive instructor, researcher and island supervisor for Reef Conservation International, a nonprofit engaged in conservation research activities to protect Belize’s marine ecosystems. On the weekends, he travels home to his village, Laguna, in mainland Belize, a journey that can take four hours when the weather is good.
ReefCI, as it’s known, is one of a number of coral protection nonprofits that have launched in Belize in the last three decades, a response to one of the world’s quietest ecological disasters.
All along Belize’s 200 miles of coral reef, a species is being suffocated. Climate change has warmed the world’s oceans, including Belize’s tropical seas, more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 100 years, and much of the reef has become diseased or stressed to the point of bleaching, an effect that turns the vibrant living invertebrates into stark white skeletons. Over 50% of the world’s coral reefs have already died, and without significant intervention, UNESCO projects that Belize’s reef will be almost entirely gone by 2050.
“The science tells us that time is running out to take action,” said Mis, “and to me this means that I can not rest. Not when my daughter still has her whole life to live.”
“Belize Has Been Quite Lucky In Some Ways”
Coral are a remarkably sophisticated and misunderstood creature, as vital to the sea as trees are to land. A coral is not one animal, but a collective structure of thousands, sometimes even millions of polyps, which are tiny, fully functioning animals with mouths and stomachs.
Polyps evolved to absorb dissolved minerals in the water, which they convert to calcium carbonate, or limestone. The polyps use these minerals to build skeletal structures as complex as any built by people, from great branching fan coral to sturdy, reef-building elk and staghorn acropora that can grow to the size of houses. They are found in warm waters all over the world.
Polyps are remarkable for their “hive mind,” a kind of animal intelligence that allows all the collective parts of a single coral to act and respond as one organism. The genetic code embedded within polyps instructs them to build their elaborate skeletons and grow in efficient patterns that are beneficial to their survival.
But coral are delicate, stationary animals, qualities that make them highly sensitive to the rapid environmental changes happening in Belize and around the world.
Karl Castillo is a marine science researcher specializing in coral ecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Castillo was born in Belize, and spent much of his early career studying the Belize coral reef system.
“When we think of climate change in regards to coral,” he said, “we are looking at rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification, as well as […] other factors like storms and precipitation. Belize, of course, is at risk of all of this.”
Castillo studies how different species of coral adapt to changes in their environment. The oceans absorb the majority of the excess heat that greenhouse gas emissions trap in the atmosphere. Coral has evolved to survive within the range of between 26 and 32 degrees Celsius (76 to 90 F), though it is narrower for individual species. Even a small change in temperature can send the animal into thermal distress.
Bleaching, which kills coral at the highest rate among all the species’ active threats, occurs when polyps expel the algae within their bodies that acts as their food source in an attempt to conserve energy. This is a stress response that leaves the coral a striking white, its skeleton exposed. While some coral can recover after a bleaching event, most often bleaching is an omen of imminent death.
“A reef that has experienced a bleaching event is a very sad place,” said Castillo. “It is hard to comprehend that kind of collapse.”
Climate change, coupled with a huge increase in nitrates from agricultural runoff from farms on the mainland, also makes ocean water more acidic. Rapid changes in nitrate levels cause coral to stop growing or even lose their structural integrity. In extremely acidic waters, such as those along the northern shore of Jamaica, large patches of coral have disintegrated.
Both the warming of the sea and its increasing acidity allow coral diseases to thrive and spread over long distances. Stony coral tissue loss disease, theorized to be a flesh-eating bacterial pathogen, first appeared in the Florida Keys in 2014. By June 2019, research indicated it had already spread to Mexico’s Cozumel island and parts of northern Belize. Coral volunteers in the south say they are already seeing signs of its problems here, too.
“While there is certainly less development in Belize than in tourist havens like, say, Cancun or Jamaica, commercial fishing and real estate have significant impact on the health of the reef,” said Castillo.
In the 20 years since a major hurricane rocked Belize’s coastline, the country has rebuilt itself as a popular destination for American and European tourists. Today, 800-foot cruise liners release tons of food and fuel waste into the waters, stirring up sand from the seafloor and suffocating the coral. Five-star resorts have been built on islands that have never been inhabited by humans before, and small cayes are being expanded by dredging sand and soil from the surrounding waters, often decimating entire sections of coral reef.
Coral are what ecologists call a keystone species, meaning that they are vital to the survival of an entire ecosystem; if coral dies, so goes the majority of marine life in the Caribbean. For some animals, like the parrotfish, coral are a source of food. For so many others, including the Caribbean spiny lobster and the common grouper, coral provide much-needed shelter from sunlight and predators. Many species will make lifelong homes in one coral, going out only to find food or a mate.
Reefs are like cities, and the fish, sea turtles, crustaceans, stingrays and zooplankton are their residents.
“We can see in reefs that have already been destroyed, like in parts of Florida, that when the coral has died, the wildlife does not return,” says Castillo. “This in itself is a problem, where many species simply die, but those that survive move to another part of the ocean and create imbalances in the ecosystem.”
“Seeing is Beliz-ing”
Lisa Carne has been trying to tell the world what is happening to coral in Belize for 25 years. The world, for the most part, has not listened. “The ecosystem we are trying to save is what keeps this country alive,” she said.
Few, including Belizeans like Mis who grew up in the rainforest far from the coast, knew about the importance of the reef to the country’s culture and economy. Even people who spend their lives at sea, like fishers of conch and lobster, were only recently given environmental guidelines for their work. Most people never knew the reef was at risk in the first place.
Carne is a figure of mythic proportions in southern Belize. In Placencia, locals know her for more than just her work. She is famous for driving a bright orange pickup truck with her nonprofit’s logo branded on the driver’s side door. Carne moved to Placencia from California in 1995 to work as a research assistant for the Smithsonian Institute. It was later that year that Belize saw its first mass coral bleaching event in history.
She was still a young and freshly relocated biologist when Hurricane Iris devastated hundreds of coastal communities on and around the Placencia Peninsula in 2001. The lack of care and concern for the decimated sections of coral reef after the event made Carne wonder: can we regrow this essential part of our ecosystem?
“I wanted to spend my life in the water, working in the field,” said Carne. “I started out down in the reef by myself, recording data and running experiments on coral regeneration.”
The removal of living coral fragments to use as seeds for a new coral organism, also known as coral regeneration or coral farming, is all the rage in marine ecology today.
“Coral restoration is like yoga,” says Carne, “everybody is trying to do it, but most people aren’t very good at it.”
In 2005, however, the practice was still a novelty. Scientists knew that it was possible to regrow coral and had “farmed” the animals in labs for several years, but no one had ever put those methods to the test where they were needed most: the ocean floor.
Carne, through dozens of trial-and-error experiments on real Belizean coral, learned that not only was it possible to regrow coral, it could be done on a massive scale. She discovered that acropora coral, what most people call staghorn and elkhorn, are the most receptive to regeneration if they are “planted” in a different part of the reef system. In 2013, Carne put a public face to her work by founding Fragments of Hope, a nonprofit created to restore the coral reef in Belize and advocate for greater awareness and protection of the species that call it home. She is Fragments of Hope’s only full-time employee, but she has worked with over 60 trained local volunteers and divers who are passionate about conserving the reef.
In 2006, Carne put a public face to her work by founding Fragments of Hope, a nonprofit created to restore the coral reef in Belize and advocate for greater awareness and protection of the species that call it home. She is Fragments of Hope’s only full-time employee, but she has worked with dozens of local volunteers and divers who are passionate about conserving the reef.
Victor Faux, 30, is one of three divers currently working with Fragments of Hope to regrow coral and teach others about conservation.
“When Lisa first started out, she was using Laughing Bird Caye as a kind of laboratory,” he said, citing the island as an example of where Fragments of Hope’s work has really flourished. “We’ve done two kinds of work there. It’s outplanting, where we take bigger coral pieces we have grown and start to build the reef back up again, and then it’s the nurseries, where we grow the coral from micro fragments.”
The nurseries look more like underwater cage match scenes than places that could foster new life, but they are more effective and cost-efficient than any laboratory on land. They are rudimentary cubes about 10 feet across, made of steel rebar cross-hatched with ropes. The coral fragments are embedded into the fibers of the rope, where the animal’s skeleton has space and protection to spread out and take root. Some fragments are carefully sutured to round plates of concrete, dubbed “cookies” in the Fragments of Hope lexicon, while others are placed on temporary trays.
“It’s the outplanting that really amazes people who come see our work,” said Faux.
Tasha Gibson also dives for Fragments of Hope, and is a part of one of Placencia’s oldest local families.
Laughing Bird Caye is just a little bigger than Tom Owens with even less infrastructure. It is among the best preserved Marine Protection Areas (MPA) in Belize, co-managed by the Belizean government and a nonprofit organization. Off the east-facing beach of the caye, coral fields the size of soccer pitches are thriving, made up entirely of regrown coral.
A practiced eye can tell it from a naturally occurring reef–a little heavy on the acropora and pillar coral, a little light on the soft and fan coral–but to the casual observer it appears to be one of the healthiest ecosystems in the region.
“I say ‘seeing is Beliz-ing,’” said Carne, “ because you have no idea how far we’ve come and how effective our work has been until you go down in the water and look at it for yourself.”
Fragments of Hope divers only outplant corals outside of hurricane season and when weather conditions are at their best. The rest of the year is spent mostly monitoring the progress of existing outplants and mapping reefs. Another key aspect to Fragment’s of Hope work is community outreach and building awareness on the importance of reefs. At various spots on the Placencia Peninsula and scattered around the cayes, signs that read “More Coral = More Fish” are posted, on supermarket walls, boat docks, and outside the bars and restaurants that tourists frequent.
“If we can make people connect the health of the reef to their daily lives, you might actually make some progress,” says Carne.
Fragments of Hope is part of a larger network of environmental nonprofits that operate throughout Belize. ReefCI, where Mordy Mis works as a supervisor on Tom Owens Caye, has been unable to secure a license to do coral regeneration, but instead provides valuable survey data on the health of commercial species like conch and lobster and essential services like the management of invasive lionfish.
“Give Me A Break. Not A Thing Has Changed”
Like Mis, Frank Hachmann splits his time between an idyllic working life as the ReefCI operations manager on Tom Owens Caye and his home on the mainland. During breaks between diving expeditions on the reef, he sits in a hammock beneath the shade of breezy palms with his dog, Jimbo, in his lap.
Hachmann fell in love with scuba diving as a teenager in Germany, starting with pitch-black lakes and eventually graduating to dives in the freezing North Sea. The warm, crystal-clear waters of Belize are still foreign to him, but his knowledge of coral and its delicate marine partners makes him a capable leader on Tom Owens.
But he says things are not so idyllic, and that his group and others face an uphill fight with the government of Belize over keeping the reef safe from development and properly regulated.
“The government does tend to get a lot of praise internationally for taking certain environmental measures,” Hachmann admits. “But in reality things are much more complicated. Sometimes these measures are not what they seem.”
Belize’s government had a spotlight placed on them when, in 2009, UNESCO placed the Belize Barrier Reef on their list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. The placement was a response specifically to the immediate human threats to the reef like development and pollution, not the looming danger of climate change. UNESCO maintains today that climate change is too broad a threat to list its potential victims.
The classification increased international pressure on the country to take protective actions like strengthening the mangrove regulations and creating a temporary ban on all oil drilling in the country. And while this move made Belize the first country in the world to ban marine oil exploration, Hachmann and Carne argue that it was mostly a public relations stunt.
“Well, everyone knows that they’re still doing seismic testing [for oil],” says Hachmann. “All over the reef, and if they find something, I think we will maybe see the difference between a moratorium and a ban.”
Hachmann says that this type of behavior is typical.
“I’ve been told personally by an oil worker that they were told to do testing in an illegal zone,” he says. “He told me that something must have gone wrong with the coordinates he received from the government. That’s very common.”
When the reef was removed from UNESCO’s list in 2018, environmental advocates rejoiced. But Lisa Carne was angry. She knew that this was bad news.
“Journalists would come down to Belize after and ask me, ‘Well aren’t you happy that the reef is saved?’” she said. “Give me a break. Not a thing has changed.”
Victor Faux, who grills pork ribs and beef cuts on the Placencia boardwalk when he isn’t diving with Fragments of Hope, said the ban on single-use plastics that went into effect in 2019 isn’t much different.
“We still use plastic containers,” he says. “The grocery stores still use plastic bags. Plastic is everywhere, even if it’s supposed to be illegal. People don’t care. That all still ends up in the ocean and on the reef. I know because I’ve seen it.”
Organizations like ReefCI and Fragments of Hope both spend significant time working with government officials, mostly with individuals in the Fisheries Department and in the Department of the Environment.
Both organizations said that the government is too corrupt for conservation to be in any individual government worker’s best interests.
“The country is run by very strong, very loyal political families in Belize City and Belmopan,” says Hachmann, “or at least that has been the experience I have had…it is the sort of thing where it might cost you $500 (BZD) for a license to hunt sharks, which is terrible for the ecosystem in the first place, but then another $500 under the table.”
He says cycles of bribery and poor communication make working with the government feel impossible.
Corruption in Belize is a proven fact. In 2017, Prime Minister Dean Barrow conceded to corruption within his own administration, even dubbіng the Lands Department run at the time by his Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega as a “hotbed of corruption”.
Following these concessions, a number of documents emerged that cited widespread and systemic corruption within the Lands Department. Other departments were placed under investigation, many of which are still ongoing.
The corrupt deals that keep the government from working for the reef happen behind closed doors and without much record, but both Hachmann and Carne, along with the Belizeans they work with, agree it is foreign land developers that are paying most of the bribes.
Newly built resorts like Harvest Caye, a billion-dollar cruise ship enclave just off the shore of Placencia, are almost always backed by wealthy developers, mostly from the US, Canada, Europe and China. In the case of Harvest Caye, over five miles of beaches were created around the island from sand and ground-up coral retrieved from the land or even dredged from the seafloor. This is illegal in most areas of Belize, but it is one of the most common construction tactics even within the Marine Protected Areas.
Another concern for the nonprofits is global politics. Many of the country’s protected zones are looked after entirely or co-managed by representatives of the European Union. Belize, which was the colony of British Honduras until its independence in 1981, has a special relationship with Europe. The British military still has a training support unit in Belize that can be seen at various bases in the north. But with the realization of the Brexit movement and the formal severing of ties between the United Kingdom and the European Union, conservationists are concerned the EU will pull out of Belize entirely.
“If the money from the EU stops flowing at any point, it will have major negative impacts,” says Hachmann. “It would take years to recover from that.”
“This Just Isn’t That Story”
Despite the gridlock between nonprofits and government, there is one population in Belize that appears to be waking up.
On a wet, windy day in March, a group made up of the sons and daughters of fishers float steadily in the shallow waves off Laughing Bird Caye. The young students have their heads firmly down, staring through snorkeling goggles at the alien world below them. Careful not to kick the newly regrown coral, they delicately balance treading water with listening to the words of Tasha Gibson, who is giving the grand tour of Fragments of Hope’s most impressive project.
“If even one or two of these kids is fascinated by what they see and decides to commit part of their lives to conservation, we have made incredible progress,” said Gibson. “The rest may go back to their families and at least tell them what they saw, and plant a seed in their mind that something needs to change.”
Youth, the focus of so much conservation education outreach, are more aware of the problems the reef is facing than ever. From the efforts of Mordy Mis who speaks at local schools about the importance of living sustainably to the Fragments of Hope programs that allow children to snorkel on the reef for the first time, a generation of new conservationists is growing.
“They grow up with the internet, too” says Victor Faux, flipping a pork rib and wiping his brow. “With the kids today things spread like crazy, it’s amazing to watch them get excited about [coral].”
If the presence of increasingly active and resilient nonprofits is one sign of progress, the engagement of the youth surely marks another.
But the future is only bright if a number of things go as planned. The ban on oil drilling would need to be permanent, Marine Protected Areas would need to be better enforced, and coral regeneration would need to be expanded by a factor of hundreds. Most importantly, the effects of global climate change, a problem which came to Belize from the heavily industrialized world, would need to be halted and reversed.
“When it comes to climate change, everyone wants a nice, clean story with a happy ending,” says Lisa Carne. “This just isn’t that story.”
There are many things that Belize, its government, and its people can do to ensure the survival of the reef. There are far fewer that they can do to fight an aggressively warming planet. Without significant intervention by the global community, oceans will get warmer, more coral will bleach or become diseased, and the ecosystem will fall apart even with the strictest protections in place.
“Right now we are essentially buying the world time to figure this out,” says Carne. “Look how well that’s worked so far.”
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