Coral reefs are the most biologically diverse and productive ecosystems in the world. Although reefs account for only 0.2% of the world’s oceans they provide habitats for 1/3 of all marine species.
Reefs provide many essential commodities, including building material and food, as well as mass employment for thousands of people (through fisheries and tourism). Reefs also act as a natural sea defense protecting the coastline from storm damage, erosion and flooding by dissipating wave energy. Associated ecosystems such as seagrass beds and mangroves act as nursery grounds for many species and play an important role in rejuvenating fish stocks.
With all that they provide, coral reefs are one of the most economically valuable ecosystems on earth, being valued at approximately US$375 billion per year. 8% of the world’s population (0.5 billion people) live within 100 km of a coral reef, so great demand is being placed on these resources. The dependence of so many people on coral reefs means it is vital that we protect them. The future of coral reefs world-wide is at risk, due to large-scale threats such as climate change, and smaller-scale human impacts such as coastal development, over-fishing and pollution (e.g. through agricultural and industrial activities). In order to protect our reefs for the future, designation and effective management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is required in collaboration with a good scientific understanding of the reef ecosystem.
Southern Environmental Association contributes to national and regional scientific databases which are used to monitor the status of the Belize Barrier Reef System. A regional approach ensures that the level of impacts on Belize’s reef resources can be closely monitored in order to sustain them for the future. SEA conducts long-term reef monitoring at three MPAs: Laughing Bird Caye National Park (LBCNP), Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve (GSSCMR) and Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve (SCMR). Quantitative data collection focuses on the following areas:
• Reef health: Percentage cover by corals, macroalgae and other benthic (organisms living on the seabed) communities is recorded, with particular attention being given to coral bleaching (the paling or turning white of corals due to stress, especially due to increased water temperatures).
• Commercial species: Abundance and size of commercially important species of fish, lobster and conch are recorded. In the case of lobster and conch, data are collected both when the fishing season is open and closed
• Spawning aggregations: At Gladden Spit, year-round monthly monitoring of fish spawning aggregations is conducted, recording the abundance and size of different species and their behavior (different behaviors are exhibited prior to spawning). Gladden Spit is the most important fish spawning aggregation site in the country; up to 30 different species of fish are known to come here to spawn. Aggregating species include snappers (Cubera, Mutton, Dog and Yellowtail) and Nassau groupers. At Sapodilla Cayes, spawning aggregations of Nassau Grouper are monitored December – February.
• Seagrass: Acting as an important nursery ground for many reef species, healthy seagrass beds are vitally important in maintaining the health of the reef community. Percentage cover by different seagrass species is monitored on a quarterly basis. At SEA’s monitoring sites, Thalassia testudinum is the dominant species, followed by Syringodium filiforme.
• Turtles: Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and Green (Chelonia mydas) turtles are frequently seen within all three protected areas. Abundance and location of nests and nesting success is monitored.