Why is the Belize Barrier Reef one of the most successful coral restoration projects in the world?
In Belizecommunity conservation empowers local tour guides, anglers and volunteers with the skills and resources to save Belize’s barrier reef.
Coordinated by Belize-based nonprofit Fragments of Hope, the coastal community of Placencia Village in the Stann Creek District of southern Belize has spent more than a decade planting hundreds of thousands of coral fragments among hurricane-ravaged reefs.
Guides, fishermen, divers and divers are trained to plant coral and monitor its development as part of a community-driven system that has seen coral cover in protected areas off Placencia rebound from 6% to 60%.
Placencia has become one of the most successful and sustainable coral regeneration sites in the world, and the community-based conservation model is being expanded to protect and regenerate large swaths of the vast, but endangered, coral reef.
Why protect the Belize Barrier Reef?
the Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest reef system in the world. Stretching 190 miles along the coast of Belize, it is home to hundreds of species of corals, fish, turtles, molluscs and marine mammals.
It is also vital to the Belizean economy – the World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that the reef represents 15% of the country’s GDP and provides employment for over 200,000 people in the fishing and tourism sectors.
But Belize’s barrier reef is threatened by related coral bleaching events to climate change, trawlingoil exploration and natural disasters.
In 2001, huge sections of the Belize Barrier Reef were devastated when Hurricane Iris hit the Placencia Peninsula. The excess coral in the region has been reduced from around 50% to a minimum of 6%, endangering an already fragile ecosystem while putting local livelihoods at risk.
Lisa Carne, founder of Shards of hope and a marine biologist from the United States who has lived in Belize since the 1990s, explains how many have written off the reef for good.
“After Hurricane Iris, everyone in Placencia was saying the reef was dead,” says Carne. “The general feeling was that the reef could not be saved and no one was interested in conservation projects.”
Reproducing coral thanks to an ingenious process
Carne had other ideas.
Many species of coral can reproduce asexually through a process called fragmentation.
After seeing Shattered Elkhorn Fragments coral in the seagrass in Ambergris Caye, a popular tourist destination in northern Belize, Carne decided it must be possible to transplant coral cuttings to start new colonies in vulnerable areas like Placencia.
Using a similar methodology for transplanting and growing coral, written by fellow marine biologist Dr. Austin Bowden-Kerby, Carne began establishing coral nurseries in Placencia where coral cuttings could be grown and used for regenerate the reefs.
From the beginning, the project has always been community driven.
Carne explains how it was local fishermen and tour guides who began informing her of the positive progress of the coral nurseries she began planting among the decimated reefs.
And in 2006, Carne received funding that allowed his experiments to grow.
In 2009, restoration efforts took off when Carne launched the “Coral Nursery Project”.
The goal was to save the once vibrant coral reef at Laughing Bird Caye National Parka protected area that the local community had successfully convinced the government to protect as a national park, before it was hit by Hurricane Iris.
This formed the basis of the community conservation charity ‘Fragments of Hope’, which in 2013 was registered as a non-profit association.
A successful model of community conservation
Fragments of Hope provides the training required under Belizean law to handle coral. The charity trains fishermen, tour guides, boat crews, divers and community volunteers to prune and monitor corals in underwater nurseries, and to plant and monitor corals in fishing areas. restoration.
With the help of the community, Fragments of Hope has now planted over 85,000 coral fragments in Laughing Bird Caye National Park alone.
The non-profit organization also runs extensive outreach projects, providing Belizean schools with educational resources and materials that will empower the next generation to continue protecting Belize’s Barrier Reef.
From the original coral nurseries in Laughing Bird Caye National Park, the community has now established 23 sites around Placencia. Carne explains how a recent surveying project using drone technology allowed them to accurately quantify the extent of coral cover in the area.
Laughing Bird Caye National Park now has 60% coral cover, greater than the cover before Hurricane Iris. The coral is now a base for a thriving marine ecosystemwhere tourists can snorkel and dive with stingrays, tropical fish and turtles.
“More coral equals more fish,” Carne says of the community conservation model. “And it’s amazing how much of a difference you can make in a decade. We now have tour guides who can go out and show their guests a coral reef ecosystem, not just rubble.
The success of the project has not gone unnoticed and Fragments of Hope is now expanding its work to several sites along the Belize Barrier Reef.
Government agencies are also rising to the challenge. Bottom trawling is now prohibited in Belize, important fish species such as parrotfish are protected by law and oil exploitation near the reef is now illegal.
Fragments of Hope also announced a new collaboration with SECORE Internationalan organization that promotes the restoration of coral reefs worldwide.
The partnership will allow the nonprofit organization to begin implementing coral seeding at their restoration sites, a process that allows the coral to grow sexually rather than asexually. This increases genetic diversity and improves the long-term health of coral reefs.
Their philosophy is simple: ‘more fish = more coral’.