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One of the most biodiverse systems on the planet, reefs are home to roughly a quarter of all marine species. Some 6 million fishermen around the world derive livelihoods from the reefs. Reef systems help shield coastal communities from the brunt of tropical storms and serve an important role in tourism. But the world’s reefs are in trouble.
In Belize, battering hurricanes, rampant oil exploration, and unchecked coastal development had ravaged its fragile reefs. By 2009, the downward spiral had become so severe for Belize’s Barrier Reef Reserve System that UNESCO put the nation’s reefs on its List of World Heritage in Danger.
But then, something remarkable happened. Belize brought its reefs back from the brink of extinction. The Central American nation offers a compelling example of how a grassroots environmental movement can spur governments to enact tougher environmental laws and regulations and how, when properly applied, restorative processes can help coral recover from even the severest damage.
“Belize had a willingness to chart a new course for its country,” says Fanny Douvere, coordinator for the marine program at UNESCO’s World Heritage Center. “It’s an innovative plan that resulted in a landmark conservation success, and it can serve as a model elsewhere.”
A choppy half-hour boat ride from the mainland lies a narrow, ribbon-like island ringed with granular coral sand beaches. In the distance, the azure sky seems to meld with the cobalt waters. Along the beach, the gently lapping waves and shallows are tinged brown with native seagrass.
It’s an idyllic setting. But the island’s real draw lies hidden beneath the waves.
Under the clear, calm water, large outcroppings of chocolate-colored elkhorn and staghorn coral are entangled in a pastel wash of coral fans and sponges. Queen triggerfish, with tails like neon-blue sickles and pointed, skeptical faces, mingle with schools of yellow-tailed, horse-eye jacks. Occasionally a marine giant such as a spotted eagle ray or loggerhead turtle swims by. It’s a tranquil, otherworldly scene, like an Impressionist painting brought to life.
A decade or two ago, this scene would have been impossible. Tiny Belize had a massive problem.
Battering hurricanes, rampant oil exploration, and unchecked coastal development had ravaged the fragile ecosystem. By 2009 the downward spiral had become so severe for Belize’s Barrier Reef Reserve System that UNESCO put the Central American nation’s reefs on its List of World Heritage in Danger.
But then something remarkable happened. Belize brought its reefs back from the brink of extinction at a time when coral around the world is under tremendous threat.
As the clock ticks for the world’s coral reefs, Belize offers a compelling example both of how a grassroots environmental movement can spur governments to enact tougher environmental laws and regulations and how, when properly applied, restorative processes can help coral recover from even the most severe damage. What’s more, Belize, with its steadily growing tourism-fueled economy, sets an example of how even small, poor countries can prosper when they put environmental issues front and center.
“Belize had a willingness to chart a new course for its country,” says Fanny Douvere, the coordinator for the Marine Program at UNESCO’s World Heritage Center. “It’s an innovative plan that resulted in a landmark conservation success, and it can serve as a model elsewhere.”
A system in crisis
One of the most biodiverse systems on the planet, reefs are home to roughly a quarter of all marine species. Some 6 million fishermen around the world derive livelihoods from the reefs, particularly in the developing world. Reef systems help shield coastal communities from the brunt of tropical storms and serve as economic buoys for tourist-dependent communities.
But the world’s reefs are in trouble.
One of Earth’s more ancient complex life forms, coral has proved to be very vulnerable to the higher ocean temperatures and increased ocean acidification brought on by climate change. Mass bleaching events along with disease and the increased frequency and ferocity of tropical storms have decimated reef systems. The Caribbean alone has lost up to 80% of its coral reef cover in recent decades.
In Belize, reefs were being rapidly degraded by both changing environmental factors and human development. Particularly damaging was the depletion of the nation’s mangrove forests, which have a vital symbiotic relationship with the coral reefs. A lack of adequate government oversight, a regulatory framework, or a vision for future conservation exacerbated these problems.
Lisa Carne, a marine biologist, recalls 2001 as the year that could have been the beginning of the end for Laughing Bird Caye.
In 2001 Hurricane Iris hit southern Belize and caused massive damage on land; less obvious was the effect it had on the reefs that line the coast. Fragile reef systems are frontline natural barriers to tropical storms, and as such, often suffer grievous damage from them. Laughing Bird Caye was no exception.
“It was a wasteland,” says Ms. Carne, a California transplant who started the Belize nonprofit Fragments of Hope, which focuses on restoring local coral reefs. “The caye was split in half, the trees were destroyed, and it was washed over with dead marine life. Most local guides gave it up for dead.”
But Ms. Carne wasn’t ready to mourn just yet.
‘Giving nature a boost’
The devastation that Ms. Carne witnessed sparked an idea. What if she could help the reef recover by reseeding and replanting coral beds the same way landscapers replenish flower beds? She eventually founded Fragments of Hope to spearhead this enterprise. It now has some 40 employees and volunteers who, in addition to other duties, develop and maintain coral nurseries at Laughing Bird Caye and other sites in need of maintenance and recovery.
These nurseries are in situ marine laboratories containing submerged grids of rebar (called tables) as well as rope lines that foster young coral until they are big and healthy enough to be transplanted onto coral reefs in need of restoration or replenishment. The focus is to target hardy, thermally tolerant coral that stands the best chance of surviving in the warming marine ecosystem.
After propagating the coral, Ms. Carne’s team transplants them in tightly knit patterns that facilitate cross-fertilization during spawning, she explains.
“Basically, this accelerates the natural reef recovery processes,” says Ms. Carne. “We’re giving nature a boost.”
The first of their kind in Belize, these nurseries have been at the center of the coral reef renaissance at Laughing Bird Caye. However, this remarkable resurgence of coral and its accompanying marine life at Laughing Bird Caye and at other coral reefs in Belize would not have been possible without widespread public awareness of the problem, a buy-in from local communities, and a willingness on the part of the government to reprioritize the reef.
“Typically in ocean conservation, everyone works in specialized areas and they don’t necessarily communicate with each other,” says Dr. Douvere of UNESCO. “In Belize what was so novel and new was that we were able to build bridges between different entities and have everybody to move forward together towards the implementation of the common vision for conservation.”
Not everyone is jumping on board the save Belize’s reef campaign right away. In fact, as Ms. Carne and her team cultivated coral, legislators had been secretly selling offshore oil concessions. Those secretive deals became public right around the time that the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded releasing 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
The environmental devastation caused by this disaster was not lost on the people of Belize, some 50% of whom derive livelihoods from reef-related fishing and tourism. That coupled with the revelation that the government had been secretly greenlighting unchecked oil exploration around their reef served as a turning point in national priorities.
By 2012 environmental organizations had helped mount a public referendum in which 96% of voters supported the restoration and protection of reef systems. The referendum set the stage for reform of environmental laws and regulations, and it created public awareness around the environmental dangers threatening coral reefs.
The government took its cues from this public outpouring and with UNESCO’s help began to work with scientists, grassroots organizations, and nongovernmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund to develop a plan to tighten regulations, preserve mangrove habitats, and enact more oversight of reef systems.
In 2015 Belize’s government began to implement a long-term conservation plan, and in 2017 the government took the step, virtually unprecedented around the world, of putting a moratorium on all oil exploration. In 2018 the government enacted regulations designed to protect Belize’s mangroves and national parks. These actions led UNESCO in 2018 to remove Belize from its List of World Heritage in Danger. The success was the highlight of UNESCO’s Marine World Heritage 2019 Annual Report, which hailed the effort as a model for other nations.
Belize’s multilateral conservation plan was developed by the government but also drew assistance from UNESCO and nonprofits, as well as local stakeholders such as guides and tour operators. It was this environment of shared stakes and common purpose that allowed groups and individuals who didn’t ordinarily work together to unite with a common vision for the future.
And that success has given new hope to marine scientists elsewhere who have been documenting the stresses facing the world’s reef systems.
“If the climate continues to change at the rate that it has been then we are heading towards a pretty grim outlook for reefs,” says Andrew Altieri, staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “However, you can have an individual reef that is pretty degraded turn around dramatically if you enact the right remedies. We are constantly being surprised by the capacity for marine systems to be resilient or adaptive.”