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Aug 31, 1999

Research station inaugurated at Carrie Bow Caye

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It’s one of the most beautiful cayes in Belize, but it’s not being used for tourism. Every year since 1972 the Smithsonian Institute based in Washington D.C. has sent between thirty to ninety scientists to this tiny island on the reef to study everything from sea worms to sponges to mangroves. Two years ago a fire destroyed the main building of their field station. On Friday, the image of burnt wood was replaced by an air of good spirits as the scientists got ready to settle into their new facility. News Five was there.

Klaus Ruetzler, Director, Carrie Bow Field Station

“From all I know and heard from my colleagues, it’s still the most untouched place in the Caribbean and we hope to keep it like that.”

Twenty-five years ago scientists from the Smithsonian Institute found undisturbed ecosystems in Belize… ecosystems that had already been ruined by human impact in their northern homes. Since then they’ve collected thousands of specimens, written hundreds of scientific documents and have helped to monitor the health of Belize’s reef. Recent periods of calm, which are nice for people riding in boats, have not been so good for the reef.

Klaus Ruetzler

“There is a downside now because we had some periods of long calms like the last three or four years. We’ve had extended calms during August like now, the summer months when the sun is the highest and the penetration of ultraviolet light is deep, the water is not turned over as much as usual so it heats up.”

Although Smithsonian scientists who use Carrie Bow Caye have not had a proper facility for the past two years, their research has continued uninterrupted. They have noted that while coral can be subjected to high temperatures for several days, even weeks without ill effect, a steady increase of two tenths of a degree over a long period of time can wipe out entire populations. The calm aftermath of Mitch proved fatal.

Klaus Ruetzler

“The coral population, particularly down south in the Pelican Cayes where we study, that’s a very undisturbed mangrove reef combination area, is very delicate in respect to suspended sediments and we have studied the coral population very carefully and they were totally unaffected by bleaching until two years ago and then we saw the first signs. And then when Mitch came through there was such a long calm period and it was just in a very bad time of the year. And now all these populations that we had just mapped and studied are practically dead.”

While they can’t control the weather, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, David Aguilar says the Ministry can minimize the damage from humans.

David Aguilar, P.S., Ministry of Natural Resources

“What we are trying to do is to make sure that the environmental laws and the other pertinent legislation are adhered to by the different companies that use the coastal areas because of course if there is any pollution or pesticides in rivers and streams or on the coastlines of course this will impact on the reef. So our job is to really try and see if we can improve that awareness for the people, the users of the coastal areas and even the river areas.”

Q: “A common retort I hear is, “Why isn’t this law being enforced?” Is it “lack of resources” and “not having the manpower to carry out these laws.” What is the Ministry doing to improve this?”

David Aguilar

“What we are doing is to involve the communities. For example we have protected areas, natural parks and so on and we are encouraging organizations to work with us as co-partners. In view of the fact that we lack the manpower, we have to involve the community. And that’s important because they become stakeholders. They are the stakeholders who have interest, a sense of ownership in the future of Belize.”

While Belizeans in the coastal areas may be aware of the importance of the reef, those inland need to know that everything is interconnected. Scientists at Carrie Bow point out that activity on the banks of the Sibun River affects the mangrove of the Stann Creek District coastline and the coral heads of South Water Caye. Once the balance is negatively changed, the fish, shrimp and lobster populations decrease.

Carolyn Curiel, United States Ambassador to Belize

“It begins and ends with each one of us. What we’re willing to do to study it and find out what it is that we need to do to keep it the way it is, to protect it so that this fragile and wonderful planet that we live on protects us.”

Janelle Chanona

“Even though the health of Belize’s reef is once again being placed in jeopardy after the prediction of what promises to be a very active hurricane season, the scientists here ask us to remember that, as in everything, life will go on. Reporting for News Five, I’m Janelle Chanona.”

The marine specimens collected by the Smithsonian are not currently in Belize but the Smithsonian has agreed to send them back as soon as there is a proper facility to house them. Norman Smith of the Belize Museum Project says Belize is also negotiating with the Royal Ontario Museum to have other collections there brought back as early as December of this year. The Bowman family of Dangriga gave permission to the Smithsonian Institute to use the island to do their research in the 1970s.

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