Coral reef ecosystem
Exploring The Aquarium, about a half mile paddle from our island

A new report on the health of Caribben coral reef ecosystems just came out, proclaiming the savior of the declining reefs to be none other than the ubiquitous parrotfish. This fish family is arguably the most numerous of the many fish species we encounter at Glover’s Reef. Some (but not near all) of the parrotfish species we regularly encounter while snorkeling near our island: Stoplight Parrotfish, Queen Parrotfish, Princess Parrotfish, and Midnight Parrotfish. Scientific parrotfish studies have taken place just off our shore by researchers based at the nearby Wilderness Conservation Society island, Middle Caye.

queen parrotfish
Queen Parrotfish spotted just off our shore

An international report released this week lays out a guardedly optimistic path to coral reef recovery — starting with conservation of an unlikely reef champion — the parrotfish. The report was produced by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the United Nations Environment Program.

Coral reef health requires an ecological balance of corals and algae in which herbivory is a key element. Populations of parrotfish are a critical component of that herbivory, particularly since the decline of sea urchins in the early 1980s; the main causes of mortality of parrotfish are the use of fishing techniques such as spearfishing and, particularly, the use of fish traps.

Many people say that climate change has already doomed coral reefs. But the report shows that the loss of parrotfishes and other seaweed-eating grazers has been far more important than climate change for Caribbean reef destruction so far. While it is true that climate change poses an enormous risk for the future because of coral bleaching and more acidic oceans, the fact is that reefs protected from overfishing, excessive coastal development and pollution are more resilient to these stresses. Even if we could somehow make climate change disappear tomorrow, these reefs would continue their decline. We must immediately address the grazing problem for the reefs to stand any chance of surviving future climatic shifts.

[Photos by Jason Lee (top) and Toby Chung (bottom)]
tom_owens_caye
Photo credit: bookyourdive.com

Just last week we wrote about a really cool scuba work-vacation opportunity. Now I’ve stumbled across a second such opportunity that’s focused on protecting the coral reef ecosystem. This one is being offered by Reef Conservation International. They operate out of Tom Owens Island, Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve at the southern tip of the Belize Fringe Reef. If you want a great first-hand trip report read this from Book Your Dive. Prices are $1,200 a week. It is all-inclusive meaning gear and everything except your flight and ground transportation.

Below is a great article on Reef CI’s work to protect the coral reef ecosystem that we found in a recent Toledo Howler. (We love the Howler! It’s one of our favorite ways to keep up on interesting things happening in southern Belize.)

Protecting the Coral Reef Ecosystem, one vacation at a time

coral reef ecosystemReef Conservation International was founded by Polly Wood ten years ago when she left her corporate life in Britain to pursue her passion for diving and marine conservation. A diving trip to Roatan in 1999 first sparked Polly’s interest in marine conservation but she quickly found that there were few short‐term opportunities.

Most coral reef conservation projects and placements were for gap‐year students or other longer‐term commitments. Realizing that there were others who felt as she did and who could help contribute meaningful data to scientists, she started to explore the idea of a marine conservation organisation which could offer opportunities to a much wider group of people.

Polly told us, “I wanted to create something unique, where anyone of any age could come and help contribute towards data collection, whether it was for one week or three months and for any level of diving experience, from beginners to experts.”

She attended numerous seminars on citizen science and marine conservation, explored various locations, talked to scientists and developed her business plan. One of the major factors was financial sustainability and, having looked at operations that relied on funding, she wanted to use what was at that time a fairly new concept, the voluntourism approach.

Many scientists rely on a limited pool of funding and grants, and their ability to collect data is often limited to short visits. With ReefCI being funded on a non‐profit basis by the volunteers themselves, they are able to operate year‐round and conduct regular monitoring to contribute meaningful data to the scientific community without taking funds away from existing studies.

ReefCI has a number of programs, including the Queen Conch study, lobster surveys and turtle nesting monitoring. They have also developed their own ReefCI Check, a coral reef monitoring protocol focussing on the unique marine ecosystem of Southern Belize. This includes the monitoring of indicator species and the mapping of the condition of the reef.

But, perhaps one of the biggest draws is Polly’s growing reputation as something of a whale shark “whisperer”. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean (up to 46 feet long and weighing up to 15 tons for those of you interested in statistics) and the Belize Barrier Reef attracts one of the largest concentrations of whale sharks in the world. The Sapodilla Cayes lie along one of their migration routes, meaning that they are often seen for up to nine months of the year.

Polly is modest about her ability and says they are easy to spot if you know the signs. These include boobies and terns feeding on the small fry in the water which are aided by the usually calm conditions at the Sapodillas. She also says that her secret  weapon is Roland, her husband who grew up fishing the southern Belize waters and “has eyes like a hawk”.

ReefCI provides all whale shark data to the Belize Fisheries Department. Guests also feed data into the Project AWARE Whale Shark Project, reporting whale shark sightings and providing pictures for a public photo identification database – whale sharks each have a unique pattern on their left‐hand side about the pectoral fin akin to a human fingerprint.

The Sapodilla range consists of eight cayes forming a hook shape at the southern-most end of the Belize Reef. Hunting Caye – reputed to have the most beautiful beach in Belize – is a base for the Fisheries Department and Coast Guard and also has an immigration post. Other cayes include Nicholas Caye, the Garbutt family’s Lime Caye, Franks Caye and Tom Owen’s Caye where ReefCI is based. The cayes are right on the continental shelf so they offer amazing wall dives with sheer drops and other dives with a gradual slope. These provide an amazingly varied environment with sponges and corals, pelagic fish, rays, turtles and sharks.

ReefCI has between 15 and 20 dive sites that they regularly visit. As well as finding new sites, divers will revel in the fact that there are no other dive boats in the area. Tom Owen’s Caye is many people’s idea of a perfect cast away island and is great for novice divers offering diving from the shore, warm water with few if any currents and good visibility. Polly is a certified dive instructor, having trained over 300 divers and more than 5000 dives under her belt.

The island is an acre of sand and palm trees with eleven guest rooms in cabanas and a main building which also serves as the restaurant, training centre and meeting place. ReefCI offers diving conservation trips staying on Tom Owen’s Caye from Monday to Friday, including all diving (typically two to four dives a day), diving equipment, training in survey techniques and methodology, accommodation and meals. For more information, visit www.reefCI.com and ReefCI on Facebook.

From Huffington Post

By: Becky Oskin

Charles Darwin sparked more than one controversy over the natural progression of life. One such case involved the evolution of coral atolls, the ring-shaped coral reefs that surround submerged tropical islands.

Coral reefs are actually huge colonies of tiny animals that need sunlight to grow. After seeing a reef encircling Moorea, near Tahiti, Darwin came up with his theory that coral atolls grow as reefs stretch toward sunlight while ocean islands slowly sink beneath the sea surface. (Cooling ocean crust, combined with the weight of massive islands, causes the islands to sink.)

A century-long controversy ensued after Darwin published his theory in 1842, because some scientists thought the atolls were simply a thin veneer of coral, not many thousands of feet thick as Darwin proposed. Deep drilling on reefs finally confirmed Darwin’s model in 1953.

But reef-building is more complex than Darwin thought, according to a new study published May 9 in the journal Geology. Although subsidence does play a role, a computer model found seesawing sea levels, which rise and fall with glacial cycles, are the primary driving force behind the striking patterns seen at islands today.

“Darwin actually got it mostly right, which is pretty amazing,” said Taylor Perron, the study’s co-author and a geologist at MIT. However, there’s one part Darwin missed. “He didn’t know about these glacially induced sea-level cycles,” Perron told OurAmazingPlanet.

What happens when sea-level shifts get thrown into the mix? Consider Hawaii as an example. Coral grows slowly there, because the ocean is colder than in the tropics. When sea level is at its lowest, the Big Island builds up a nice little reef terrace, like a fringe of hair on a balding pate. But the volcano — one of the tallest mountains in the world, if measured from the seafloor — is also quickly sinking. Add the speedy sea-level rise when glaciers melt, and Hawaii’s corals just can’t keep up. The reefs drown each time sea level rises.

The computer model accounts for the wide array of coral reefs seen at islands around the world — a variety Darwin’s model can’t explain, the researchers said.

“You can explain a lot of the variety you see just by combining these various processes — the sinking of islands, the growth of reefs, and the last few million years of sea level going up and down rather dramatically,” Perron told OurAmazingPlanet.

For nearly 4 million years, Earth has cycled through global chills, when big glaciers suck up water from the oceans, and swings to sweltering temperatures that melt the ice, quickly raising sea level. This cyclic growth of ice sheets takes about 100,000 years.

The researchers also found that one of the few places in the world where sinking islands and sea-level rise create perfect atolls is the Society Islands, where Darwin made his historic observations.

When we dive at Glover’s Reef, the primary species of coral we see are:

280px-Staghorn-coral-1Staghorn Coral: They possess, like all corals, stinging nematocysts, but these can pack a bit of a sting if you touch them. Observed closely, their individual corallites can be seen; each bump on the branch is an individual coral animal.

 

 

Pillar-CoralPillar Coral: This coral is occasional-to-rare in our area. It is also one of the few that actively feeds during daylight hours. You can actually see it tentacles groping for food, which gives it a fuzzy appearance. Individual small colonies can be found in numerous patch reefs near Long Caye by the observant diver. One large colony was once spotted off Northeast Caye between the reef and the wall drop off, in about 30 feet of water.

 

Golfball_coralGolfball Coral: These can be spotted throughout the reefs near Long Caye; they are small, half spheres attached here and there on top of other dead corals. This is a Star Coral, and each corallite is easily distinguished from another.

 

 

 

gillian-douglas-brain-coralBrain Coral: There are many kinds of Brain Coral, and it is rewarding to begin to distinguish between different species. The most common one seen is Symmetrical Brain Coral. Another type often seen but just as often not recognized as a separate species is Grooved Brain Coral. A third, common species, that is very similar but still distinctive enough for the layman to distinguish is Boulder Brain Coral.

 

lettuce coralLettuce Coral: The prominent coral seen off the barrier reef of the atoll, north of Northeast Caye. A beautiful coral.

 

 

 

 

fire coralFire Coral: You should not touch any coral (it’s not good for them), but this one, you definitely do not want to touch it, because it’s not good for you.  Fire coral earned its name for a reason. The sting has been compared to feeling as if an ice pick has just been jabbed into your hand.

 

 

flower coralFlower Coral: This beautiful species has large, widely spaced polyps on long stalks, that appear to originate from a central core. Only found occasionally, sometimes only in groups of 4-5 polyps.

 

 

 

elkhornElkhorn Coral: Prefer shallow areas where wave action causes constant water movement. Branches orient parallel to surge direction. A rapidly growing coral, under optimum conditions can grow 5-6 inches a year.

snorkel-coral-reef

The reefs in Belize are probably the healthiest reefs in the Caribbean, and those at Glover’s Reef are probably some of the healthiest of the lot. But everything is connected, “bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken,” as conservationist John Muir once said. So we have always kept a keen eye on the declining health of coral reef systems in the Eastern Caribbean where a perfect storm of pollution from city sewage and agricultural fertilizers, dredging and increased silt run-off, and increased water temperatures are decimating reef ecosystems.

That’s why it is heartening to hear this good news about the early results of reef restoration efforts. In an excellent article by AP writer David McFadden published Feb. 26, Coral comeback: Reef ‘seeding’ in the Caribbean, it appears that things may be on the verge of turning around.
[slideshow gallery_id=”1″] The article even mentions efforts by the government of Belize:

Belize, which boasts the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, has established bans on harvesting parrotfish, a colorful herbivore that grazes on the algae and seaweed that smothers coral.

Do you know which species is the largest fish? Why whale sharks, of course.

You’ll find out many amazing facts like that in a fascinating feature on the Mesoamerican Reef that ran in National Geographic Magazine in October. The article features some awe inspiring images like this one, shot by photographer Brian Skerry, off the coast of the Yucatan, just north of Belize.

Big Fish, Little Fish: Trapped under ice, lost at sea, chased by sharks, photographer Brian Skerry has had more than a few scares in 35 years of catching images of underwater wildlife. Despite appearances to the contrary, this close encounter with a whale shark was quite the opposite. Snorkeling off Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, amid some 400 of the world’s biggest fish, Skerry spotted a massive maw coming at him with a remora darting around inside the giant filter feeder. “It’s not something the shark would eat,” notes Skerry of the suckerfish. Neither is he. Nonetheless, he quickly moved out of the way.

Photograph by Brian Skerry

Central America’s Mesoamerican Reef is half the length of its famous Australian counterpart but in many ways more remarkable. If you like coral reefs you’ll love this article.

The print edition of the article carried this wonderful map of the region (not available in the online version.) It highlights the coral reefs, mangrove forests and sea grass beds within the region. Check out where Adventure Island is!

belize-national-geographic

Will the conch season in Belize have to be shortened? Might we need to control the amount of conch that we eat year per year? These are a couple of questions that Belize, including other Caribbean nations, might have to consider as Caribbean ministers will come together to discuss a conch petition for CARICOM during Caribbean Week of Agriculture 2012 in Antigua and Barbuda.

A United States petition submitted this March to list the Queen Conch (Strombus gigas) as a threatened or endangered species will be a priority item on the agenda of the upcoming 3rd Special Meeting of the Ministerial Council of the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM).

Over fishing of the Queen Conch might be posing a problem to the survival of the species and such petition could limit our consumption of conch if the animal becomes labeled as threatened and endangered.

The Queen Conch is a delicacy in Belize and its meat is highly demanded in dishes which include ceviche, conch fritters, conch soup, conch chowder, conch burgers, conch steak, conch bits and BBQ conch. Even if it means eating a little less conch for the season, protecting the specie and extending the closed season for it to procreate, might be the best action to take in order for us to enjoy all things conch for years to come.

Of the approximately 5,000 species of fish found along the coral reef, perhaps none are as feisty and territorial as the damselfish. Notoriously aggressive, these fish are known to nip at anything that comes between them and their food source. Likewise, these fish fiercely guard their egg clutches during spawning; quickly attacking anything that comes within close proximity. There are approximately 315 species of damselfish found worldwide, 14 species of which are found in the tropical waters of the Western Atlantic. Of those, the Sergeant Major is one of the better known and abundant species.

Found throughout temperate waters of the world, damselfish are palm-sized fish that rarely exceed six inches in length. They are brightly colored in shades of orange, red, yellow and blue, and are characterized with forked tails and a nostril on each side of the head. Attracted to the reef for protective habitat and food, damselfish feed on algal mats found among the coral, as well as other plant matter and small animals suspended in the water. With a tiny mouth lined with sharp teeth, damselfish are skilled at grinding their teeth on algae, resulting in an audible clicking sound.

It is during feeding time that the aggressive behavior of the damselfish becomes very apparent. Competing with parrotfish and surgeonfish for algae, the tiny, but quick damselfish are known to be formidable challengers, antagonizing their rivals until they leave the area. The Blue tang, however, is one of the few fish that has learned how to avoid the nips of the damselfish by feeding in large swimming groups.

Of all damselfish in the Caribbean, the Sergeant Major is one of the more plentiful and common species. This fish is larger than most damselfish (eight inches) and is named for five black bars on the side of its body that resemble the insignia of a rank in the military. The upper body of the Sergeant Major is yellow, occasionally with shades of blue, and the lower body is white with shades of gray, with a dark spot near the pectoral base. In addition to their aggressive feeding behavior, these fish participate in courtship rituals, in which nests are prepared. At this time, males also change colors and actively pursue females during the morning hours by continually circling and nudging them. Reproduction occurs during a five-month spawning period from April to August, which is linked to the lunar cycle. After approximately 200,000 eggs are laid on coral heads, the male protectively guards them until the eggs mature and hatch, after which time he returns to his normal coloration.

Fortunately, because of the curious and aggressive behavior of the Sergeant Major, and Damselfish in general, scientists continue to focus much attention on these fish. Currently in Belize and throughout the world, damselfish have a healthy population and are not threatened. However, just like all other living creatures in the sea, the damselfish is dependent on many factors, such as a healthy reef environment, for it to continue to thrive.

 

National Geographic Magazine’s October issue highlights the beauty of Belize’s Great Barrier Reef which, along with Glover’s Reef Atoll, is part of the same reef system – the Mesoamerican Reef.

The Mesoamerican Reef, described in the article as “half the length of its famous Australian counterpart but in many ways more remarkable,” contains Belize’s Great Barrier Reef, one of the country’s most remarkable – and most fragile, geological assets. This fragility and the interplay between coral, mangrove and marine life is beautifully described in words and images, he said.

Past editions of National Geographic have highlighted parts of Belize’s sacred Maya cave system and the region’s Maya culture. Mr Fleming said that along with Jacques Cousteau, National Geographic was instrumental in bringing attention to Belize’s Blue Hole, which has become one of the world’s most valued dive spots and now enjoys a higher level of environmental protection.

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/business/prweb/article/Belize-s-Beauty-Again-Featured-in-National-3900559.php#ixzz29UwSym3W

Have you ever been at the beach and seen people throwing bread in the water? The jetty in Waikiki is a prime spot for fish-feeding. But is fish feeding bad?

Overall yes, fish feeding should be avoided. It is harmful to the fish, the people in the water (whether it be snorkelers, swimmers, or divers), and to the ecosystem.

1. Hand-feeding fish and other marine life promotes a behavior called conditioning, where the animal learns to associate humans with food. And let’s face it, humans do not know how to give fish the right foods. Just like humans, fishes need important amino acids in their diets, of which they can only receive from their natural diet – not bread (or any other food humans give out). A fish’s natural diet is quite complicated and may be seasonal, daily, or temporal. When fish start to anticipate meal times with humans, it interferes with their natural feeding cycles.

2. Hand-fed fish are more vulnerable to predators. A healthy marine community relies on competition for habitat and food. Have you ever noticed that different species feed during different times of the day? Introducing an unnatural meal disturbs these competitive relationships and can lead to feeding frenzies.

3. Humans caught in a feeding frenzy, or in a location where fishes are regularly fed, may be injured. As a result of behavioral conditioning through fish feeding, unprovoked marine animals may attack (bite) humans thinking they will receive food or mistaking fingers and other body parts for food.

4. Hand-feeding fish takes a toll on the marine environment, too. The majority of reef fishes are grazers, meaning they only eat algae. They keep the growth of the algae on coral reefs under control so that the reefs aren’t smothered. When regularly introduced to unnatural food like bread, their bellies get too full to graze on algae, and the algae may become overgrown.

If fish feeding is so bad, why do people still do it? A lot of people may be misinformed, uninformed, uneducated, or just plain ignorant: they feel like they are helping the fish, doing them a favor; they are feeding the fish for their own entertainment; they see other people feeding fish and think it’s OK (follow by example).

We encourage you to be proactive and to do your research before you interact with the ocean, whether it be snorkeling, surfing, sailing, or diving. If we can all be responsible for our own actions, we can make our oceans healthier. And for your own safety, if you are in the water during a hand feeding fish frenzy, get away (fish have sharp teeth too).