Barrier Reef in poor health

The anti-offshore oil exploration lobby recently estimated that the Meso-American Barrier reef is worth over US$350 million to Belize annually in tourism, fisheries and storm surge protection, but the reef itself is in poor health, according to a recent survey carried out by the Healthy Reefs Initiative.

Belize must take a white-water to blue water approach to conserving the health of the reef, since everything that man does on land inevitably affects what happens offshore on the reef.

Rains wash excess fertilizer and other nutrients washed off farmland into rivers, which carry them out to sea, where the excess nutrients stimulates the growth of macro-algae, which compete for sunlight and space on the reef with the living polyps.

Any sewage from coastal communities that spills into the sea also encourages the growth of macro-algae. Sedimentation from dredging and other human activities also threaten the coral polyps. Belizeans must control these activities or accept part of the blame for the death of our reef.

In presenting the Meso-American reef report card at the Radisson Hotel on Tuesday, December 4, Melanie McField of the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Conservation NGO explained that the survey had measured four parameters: the percentage of the reef which was occupied by live coral polyps, the presence of macro-algae, the bio-mass of herbivorous fish which consume the macro-algae and the bio-mass of commercial species or larger, carnivorous fish.

The fish population is also important to the health of the reef, because herbivorous fish like the parrotfish or angelfish eat the macro-algae, keeping it down and allowing the coral polyps a chance to survive.

The larger, commercial species of carnivorous fish like the snapper and grouper are also important; if man overfishes these fish, their stocks may reach a level so low that the population will not be able to recover.

It is important to have no-take zones, protected areas where absolutely no fishing is allowed. Mcfield reported healthy populations in the marine protected areas, where the large numbers of adult fish which can lay thousands of eggs ensuring the continued survival of their species; but Mcfield cautioned that there should be more of such no-fishing-allowed areas.

“We need to strike a balance between the amount of fish caught to sustain fishermen’s  livelihoods and the long-term sustainability of the reef, which in turn ensures the sustainability of the fishing industry.

The survey quantified the four parameters at 193 sites in four countries, and Belize did not do so well compared to some of our neighbours.

“Of the 68 sites studied in Belize, 5% could be said to be in good condition, 22% were considered fair, but 44% were considered in poor health and 29% were considered as critical.

“Our coral cover has increased from 12% in 2008 to 19% this year, but where the level of macro-algae was fair at 9% in 2008, it is now poor at 16%. Macro-algae make life difficult for the coral polyps.

Which would not be so bad if we had the herbivorous fish to eat up the algae, but our population of herbivorous fish is also poor. It was 1788 grammes per 100 square meters in 2008, and has increased slightly to 1870 grammes this year, but this is considered poor compared to the level of 3.5 kilos which would be considered very good, especially compared to Honduras, which had levels over 5 kilos of fish per 100 square meters in 2008 and 4.3 kilos this year.

Our population of commercial fish is also poor at 495 grammes per 100 square meters, where 1.7 kilos would be considered very good.

Honduras scored much better. Of 58 sites studied around the Inner and Outer Bay islands, two percent were in Very Good condition, and another 19% were in good health. Another 31% were considered fair, while only 34% were considered as poor and 14% could be called critical.

Mexico also scored well; of the 63 sites surveyed, 5% were considered in good health, 25% were considered fair; 40% were poor and 30% were critical. Only four sites were surveyed in the Guatemala’s coastal area, where one was considered fair and three were in poor health.

Some factors affecting reef health like the acidification of the sea, warming sea temperatures and rising sea levels area considered effects of global warming and climate change; which is really beyond the control of Belize and even the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

The carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen in the 137 years since the invention of the steam engine spawned the Industrial Revolution in 1876, to such levels that we have acid rain, as the rain falling dissolves this carbon dioxide to form carbonic acid which is falling into our seas and rivers.

This acidity makes it harder for coral and any other marine animal, including conch and sea anemones, in fact all of the sea diadema, to form their shells from calcium carbonate. An acid sea makes it harder for the coral polyps to build their house.

The incomplete burning of carbon in internal combustion engines also produces carbon-monoxide, much more lethal because its poisonous to humans, but also because carbon monoxide reacts with the Ozone layer.

Ozone is a naturally occurring form of oxygen which has three oxygen atoms, rather than the two atoms in the oxygen we breathe, In the past, the ozone layer sheltered the earth by filtering out a large quantity of harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun, but as the ozone layer is depleted, the ultra-violet rays penetrate, creating a ‘greenhouse effect’ as they warm the air and seas. The warmer air is melting glaciers on mountaintops and even the polar ice-caps, causing sea levels to rise.

The report recommends that we reduce our use of automobiles and that we walk or ride a bicycle, that we turn off the lights, and try to reduce our use of electricity, to reduce our carbon foot-print as much as possible. But the broader reality is that Belize’s population is only 350,000, and even all of CARICOM is only 16 million people.

In comparison, Mexico has 112 million, Canada has 35 million, the United States has 314 million, the European Union has 502 million, Russia has 143 million, all countries that industrialized back in 1876, and show no real signs of reducing their carbon footprint.

China has 1.3 billion people and India has 1.2 billion, and both countries have embarked on ambitious programs of industrialization to provide a better quality of life for their billions of people.

They too show no sign of reining in their use of carbon fuels and their carbon footprint, and until they do, all our turning off the lights and using renewable energy like solar panels, won’t have a significant impact on what ails our reef.

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