Coral Bleaching Continues to Threaten Belize’s Barrier Reef

Coral Bleaching Continues to Threaten Belize’s Barrier Reef

Belize’s Barrier Reef System was taken off the endangered list back in 2018; however, the reef is still being threatened by coral bleaching. Earlier this month the Fisheries Department reported that rising sea temperatures are causing the worst coral bleaching event that the reef has seen in the past decade. While the bleaching is still ongoing, the organization Fragments of Hope says that corals in various areas are coping well and slowly recovering. Founder and Director of Fragments of Hope, Lisa Carne, says that corals in the Laughing Brid Caye National Park are among those showing greater resilience in warmer waters. She added that corals in southern Belize are recovering better than those in the north, and some within the region.

Lisa Carne, Founder/Director, Fragments of Hope: “2023 was an exceptionally severe year for water and air temperatures and what that translated to was a very early and extremely long bleaching event. In fact there’s still bleaching ongoing in certain sites. It’s not over yet then. Many people are saying that the Super El Nino event is contributing to what has been projected for decades and we already knew to be happening which is continued increase in temperatures globally, right? So when you look at all those graphs out there it’s pretty stark. You know, the black line is way off the charts for 2023, globally for sea temperatures, locally for Belize we’ve never experienced anything quite like this before. And so in speaking with our colleagues throughout the region, not just in Belize, we’ve learned that our three oldest restoration sites in Southern Belize seem to be faring the best, as far as we can tell, compared to other places like Florida, Jamaica, parts of Puerto Rico. There’s a lot of different groups doing restoration, but again, Laughing Bird Caye is one of the oldest sites pictured behind me. So it was exciting after months and months and months of documenting severe bleaching and even mortality in some cases meaning that corals did die from this event, to see some of these older corals recovered. And so in particular there’s some older corals there that are from 2006 and so I was quite worried that we were going to lose them this year and they bounced back. So we do have what’s called partial mortality on many of the corals, meaning pieces of the coral that bleached did die, but the overall colony is still living.”

Research data has shown that corals in southern Belize have been experiencing warmer waters for a longer period. Carne also said that the corals have also benefitted from efforts to increase resiliency through breeding. 

Lisa Carne, Founder/Director, Fragments of Hope: “The premise of our work began in 06 on sea surface satellite temperature data from 1985 to 2005 that showed us definitively that these areas have been hotter and longer than other areas of Belize. So it’s a combination of the geography, the wind and the wave patterns, you know. So these areas have been hotter for longer periods than other areas. So the premise is the corals living in these areas are already somewhat thermally tolerant. They’ve already been adapted to the higher heat areas than say upright straight out from San Pedro for example. That has been our main focus from day one for us to make sure that we have multiple individuals so when they do spawn the corals when they breed is called spawning they let go so they have a partner next to each other that’s different to breed with and so they also react differently each individual Elk Horn is going to behave differently in a bleaching sunlight hot environment and so I think the reason that we’ve had such success is the first thing I mentioned, the long-term temperature exposure they’ve already had and then the fact that we’ve worked so hard to make sure we have so many different individuals. So it’s not a single Elk Horn or a single Staghorn that’s all over the place. In fact, it’s like It’s like 30 Elk Horns at Laughing Bird – different Elk Horns – and then like almost 20 different Staghorns and I’m just talking about the individuals, right? But I mean, literally there’s like over 92,000 corals out planted.”

 Fragments of Hope has been conducting reef restoration efforts in Belize since 2006. The organization’s efforts at that time were aimed at addressing damage to the reef done by Hurricane Iris, a category four storm that hit Placencia in 2001.

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