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Jan 10, 2018

Barrier Reef Getting Healthier but Work Continues

The Mesoamerican Reef provides economic, social and cultural benefits to Belize. It is valued around a billion dollars and recent reports show that just four of Belize’s seven marine protected areas provide up to nineteen million U.S. dollars per year in economic benefits from tourism recreation.  But the reef is exposed to a number of conditions that threatens it health. The latest report shows that the reef’s condition is “fair” with an incremental increase in health index since the last report in 2016.  News Five’s Andrea Polanco tells us more.

 

Andrea Polanco, Reporting

Belize received “fair” on its reef report card – it’s an improvement from the last progress report. The reef health index is at two point eight – and is in line with the regional average for the Mesoamerican Reef which stretches along the coasts of Belize, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. Of the four countries, Honduras got a “good” grade of three point zero for its reef report. Conservationists say Belize can work harder for a better grade:

 

Melanie McField

Dr. Melanie McField, Director, Healthy Reefs Initiative

“For Belize, our reef health index has increased from the last report card. It has gone up from two point five to two point eight. That is the regional average and we are right in the average, but it is an improvement. And so that is the sum total of these four indicators of reef health that we look at.”

 

Janelle Chanona, Vice President, OCEANA Belize

“Belize can do better – it is doing better but it can do better; to move from poor to fair is something we definitely should take note of but definitely fair is fair. But we need to be in good or we need to be in excellent. So, I am really working towards the day that we can get all of Belize’s marine assets in the blue category which would mean that we are in excellent shape.”

 

Researchers studied ninety-four sites in Belize to identify the threats to the reef and devise the suitable response. Four indicators; Coral Cover, Herbivorous Fish Biomass and Commercial Fish Biomass have shown improvements, while fleshy macro algae cover is still troubling – these are plant-like marine species that out-compete, overgrow, and replace sea grass and coral reef habitats.

 

Dr. Melanie McField

“Coral cover has increased. Fish biomass has increased, both herbivorous fish and commercial fish, very slightly; but it is an increase. Unfortunately, the one indicator that is the bad news is the fleshy macro-algae, that has continued to increase, and that is the one we don’t want to see. It competes with coral and good things and it can overgrow the reef and make it look fuzzy and brown. The Parrotfish are protected by law since 2009. We are actually now seeing in Belize that the biomass of that fish has been increasing and just this year we noticed a slight decrease in the macro-algae in just Belize, so we have some slight indication that this is beginning to work, but overall, for the whole Mesoamerican Reef, fleshy macro algae is our biggest problem.”

 

But the parrotfish are not enough to reduce the fleshy macro algae. Doctor McField says Belize needs to explore other solutions, including the long-spined sea urchin.  And then there is also the problem of nutrient and sewage run offs that must be addressed.

 

Dr. Melanie McField

“The places where that urchin has come back is absolutely clean and beautiful, so we are going to look at ways where science can intervene and do some studies and help that urchin come back; there is also the Caribbean King Crab that is a great herbivore and if it comes back or we can help maybe through aqua-culture, some of that crab on the reef, we can also potentially have less macro algae. But the difficult thing that we are seeing is nutrients and sewage treatment not being improved over this time frame and the fact that when you have all these nutrients and the sewage treatments actually have viruses and other pathogens in it, that is leading to algae overgrowth and that can damage the coral too through viruses and diseases that the coral get.”

 

More replenishment zones, public awareness and action remain critical to the reef’s health.

 

Janelle Chanona

Dr. Melanie McField

“Three percent of our territorial sea is in these protected zones; protected areas that don’t allow fishing – only three percent; that is not enough. In those areas we see an abundance of fish and we see a higher health than anywhere else. But three percent can’t recede ninety-seven percent; but there is a target to have ten percent to have ten percent of full protection and if we meet that target and begin to monitor that, I think we will probably see it is actually worth it to go up to twenty percent.”

 

Janelle Chanona

“It is really important for us to be informed of regulations that exit, for us to take note of changes and what’s happening that you can see in terms of changes and communicate that because we together, and we know what Belizean unity can do, and if together we can all play our role in making the Belize Barrier Reef as strong as it needs to be then that is better for all of us.”

 

Reporting for News Five, I’m Andrea Polanco.

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