- The Mesoamerican Reef, an underwater wonder world whose survival was considered to be at risk for years, may now be removed from UNESCO’s list of threatened World Heritage Sites, thanks to bold steps to save it by activists and the Belizean government.
- Belize, a Central American country, is home to the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve system, the longest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere.
- Belize reef was named to the prestigious World Heritage List in 1996.
- However it was placed on endangered status in 2009 because of Belize’s plans to allow oil exploration nearby.
- Besides there was general lack of laws to protect the site encompassing the mangroves that help protect the reef and serve as a breeding ground for many of the hundreds of fish species that inhabit the area.
- Over many years, WWF has worked collaboratively with the government, private sector and partners to help secure a number of conservation achievements in Belize.
- Since 2010 WWF has been advocating, as part of the national Coalition to Save Our Heritage, for a full ban on oil drilling in Belize’s land-based protected areas and all offshore waters.
- An informal referendum was organized in 2012 over the question of oil exploration.
- 96% of Belizeans voted against offshore oil exploration, choosing the reef over the potential economic gains for the country.
- Subsequently the Belizean government adopted a series of laws to protect the reef notably one in December 2016 that put an indefinite moratorium on oil exploration.
- Thanks to the conservation efforts the Mesoamerican Reef is now expected to be removed from UNESCO’s list of threatened World Heritage sites in the UNESCO meeting in Manama, Bahrain, that is due in this week.
About Belize reef
- Stretching from the tip of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula all the way to Guatemala and Honduras, the reef includes 380 km in the waters off Belize, the portion covered by World Heritage status
- It is the second largest after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
- It spans 96,000 hectares (237,220 acres) and is home to one of the largest ecosystems in the Atlantic.
- Belize’s waters are a haven for 1,400 kinds of plants and animals, including rare marine turtles, rays, bonnethead sharks and dolphins.
- More than half of the country’s population, around 190,000 people, are supported by incomes generated through tourism and fisheries directly dependent on the reef.
- The site also encompassed mangroves that help protect the reef and serve as a breeding ground for many of the hundreds of fish species that inhabit the area
Threats to Mesoamerican reefs
As part of the larger Mesoamerican coral reef, The Belize Barrier Reef is facing many of the same health problems as other reefs in the world.
- The rising water temperatures brought about by El Niño type events have triggered massive coral bleaching.
- As a result there has been a 80% reduction in live coral cover on some portions of the reef over the last two decades.
- With 240 miles (386 km) of coastline to the east of Belize, their biggest tourist attractions are the islands and the incredible array of dive and snorkeling sites surrounding them.
- Of the entire Mesoamerican reef, the central Belize Barrier Reef has suffered the most.
- Illegal fishing practices such as Jamaican traps have decimated the population of parrotfish, juvenile fish, and other non-edible species.
- While this type of fishing is illegal, the central reef area is not patrolled effectively.
- As part of the Hurricane belt, Belize is vulnerable to a constant threat of serious storms which seem to be becoming more frequent and intense due to climate change.
- The continued destruction of the reef by hurricane means there’s no buffer for tidal waves, and coastal erosion becomes an issue affecting mangrove forests—a necessary part of overall coral reef health.
About Coral Reefs
- Coral reefs are large underwater structures composed of the skeletons of coral, which are marine invertebrate animals.
- The coral species that build coral reefs are known as hermatypic or”hard” corals because they extract calcium carbonate from seawater to create a hard, durable exoskeleton that protects their soft, sac-like bodies.
- Each individual coral is referred to as a polyp.
- New coral polyps live on the calcium carbonate exoskeletons of their ancestors, adding their own exoskeleton to the existing coral structure.
Ideal conditions for Coral Reefs
- Corals need to grow in shallow water where sunlight can reach them.
- Corals rarely develop in water deeper than 165 feet (50 meters).
- Corals need clear water that lets sunlight through; they don’t thrive well when the water is opaque.
- Sediment and plankton can cloud water, which decreases the amount of sunlight that reaches the zooxanthellae.
Warm water temperature:
- Corals generally live in water temperatures of 20–32° C.
- Corals are sensitive to pollution and sediments.
- Sediment can create cloudy water and be deposited on corals, blocking out the sun and harming the polyps.
- Corals need saltwater to survive and require a certain balance in the ratio of salt to water.
- This is why corals don’t live in areas where rivers drain fresh water into the ocean (“estuaries”).
Threats to Coral Reefs
Coral reefs are being degraded by an accumulation of stresses arising from anthropogenic activities and changes in the natural environment.
- Over-fishing of certain species on or adjacent to coral reefs can affect the reef’s ecological balance and biodiversity.
Destructive fishing methods
- Fishing with dynamite, cyanide and other damaging methods can damage entire reefs and is 100% unsustainable.
- Physical damage to the coral reefs can occur through contact from careless swimmers, divers, and poorly placed boat anchors.
- Sensitive habitats can be destroyed or disturbed by the dredging of deep-water channels or marinas, and through the dumping of waste materials.
- Coral reefs need clean water to thrive. From litter to waste oil, pollution is damaging reefs worldwide.
- Pollution alters the natural flow of water, greater amounts of fresh water, nutrients and sediment can reach the reefs causing further degradation.
- Nutrient-rich water causes phytoplankton to thrive in coastal areas, often causing algal blooms.
- It also encourages the growth of algae, which compete with corals for space on the reef.
- 8 million tones of plastic rubbish enters the world’s oceans every single year.
- Many discarded plastic is broken down into what is known as microplastics, tiny pieces that are mistaken by coral polyps as food and ingested.
- After years of campaigning, many countries are now changing policy; banning plastic bags, straws and single-use plastic packaging.
Climate change and Coral Reefs
- Coral bleaching occurs when the symbiosis between corals and their symbiotic zooxanthellae (tiny algae) breaks down, resulting in the loss of the algae and a rapid whitening of the coral (thus the term “bleaching”).
- This is a stress response by the coral host that can be caused by various factors, but more severe and frequent cases are being caused by a rise in sea surface temperature (SSTs).
- If the temperature decreases, the stressed coral can recover; if it persists, the affected colony can die.
- This is the name given to the ongoing decrease in the pH of the Earth’s oceans, caused by their uptake of anthropogenic CO2 from the atmosphere.
- Decrease in pH, (i.e. making the water acidic), will have negative consequences, primarily for oceanic calcifying organisms such as coral reefs.