Seeing is Belizing: Community-Led Resilient Reef Restoration

Few consider the silent plight beneath the ocean's surface as the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef thrives beneath Belize's sapphire waters. Stretching 625 miles from Mexico to Honduras, it protects against storms, nurtures marine life, and fuels Belize's tourism.

As heatwaves sweep across the globe, very few consider the silent sufferers below the ocean’s surface. A living mosaic hides beneath Belize’s sapphire waters – the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Stretching 625 miles from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico to Honduras, the majority of this reef hugs the Belizean coastline. 

It offers the first line of defense against storm surges and wave impact, acts as a nursery for numerous marine species, and fuels Belize’s tourism industry.

The value of a living, vibrant reef is undeniable. 

Few consider the silent plight beneath the ocean's surface as the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef thrives beneath Belize's sapphire waters. Stretching 625 miles from Mexico to Honduras, it protects against storms, nurtures marine life, and fuels Belize's tourism.
Mesoamerica Reef Value recorded in 2022 Reef Report Card (By Healthy Reefs for Healthy People)

Yet, these ancient organisms teeter on the edge of a silent slaughter brought on by human-induced climate change. Indeed, the recent unbearably hot days have marked the hottest July in history, as recorded by the World Meteorological Organization.

While humans can adjust thermostats to shield themselves from intense heat, corals simply endure. Dr. Derek Manzello, Coordinator at NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch, clarifies that if ocean temperatures rise just 1 – 2 °C above the maximum monthly average, especially during the warmest part of the year, corals will usually bleach. Stricken by the heat, the life-sustaining photosynthetic algae depart from the corals, leading to “coral bleaching” during which the corals turn ghastly white.

Few consider the silent plight beneath the ocean's surface as the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef thrives beneath Belize's sapphire waters. Stretching 625 miles from Mexico to Honduras, it protects against storms, nurtures marine life, and fuels Belize's tourism.
Bleached staghorn coral, nearshore patch reef to Placencia. Photo taken circa July 22, 2023 (By Fragments of Hope)

Bleached corals are essentially starving. The algae, residing within their tissues, provide them with a primary source of nutrition. The damage corals sustain from marine heat waves depends on the heat’s duration and intensity.

While corals can recover from bleaching if the heat subsides, these individuals are often vulnerable to disease for two to four years post-recovery, impairing their growth and reproduction. Notably, sea surface temperatures exceeding 1°C above the average for two months can result in coral fatality. 

Few consider the silent plight beneath the ocean's surface as the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef thrives beneath Belize's sapphire waters. Stretching 625 miles from Mexico to Honduras, it protects against storms, nurtures marine life, and fuels Belize's tourism.
Bleached elkhorn coral, nearshore patch reef to Placencia. Photo taken circa July 22, 2023 (By Fragments of Hopes) 

NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch has issued a coral bleaching alert level two for Belize for the upcoming 12 weeks. June through August 2023 saw high monthly max sea surface temperatures, a concerning anomaly, says Lisa Carne, founder of Fragments of Hope (FOH). 

Belize Bleaching Alert Area (v3.1) and Outlook (v5) Report for August 27, 2023, published by NOAA. (Image by NOAA)

Traditionally, August and September are the hottest months in Belize, with some variation, and so the time to monitor for “peak” bleaching events is usually October, but this year’s early start and continuing extreme temperatures hint at potential compound bleaching.

Few consider the silent plight beneath the ocean's surface as the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef thrives beneath Belize's sapphire waters. Stretching 625 miles from Mexico to Honduras, it protects against storms, nurtures marine life, and fuels Belize's tourism.
Graph from NOAA showing bleaching alerts beginning as early as mid-June, with a spike in severity/length of time of high heat, recorded in August of this year. (Photo by NOAA)

Laughing Bird Caye National Park (LBCNP) stands as a beacon for coral restoration, but it hasn’t been immune to the summer’s heat. FOH has noted sporadic bleaching there. LBCNP is one of seven marine protected areas within the Belize Barrier Reef World Heritage Site.

In the Caribbean, coral cover overall has declined by ~50 to 80 % since the 1970s according to studies. Post-Hurricane Iris in 2001, the LBCNP site lost most of its staghorn and elkhorn corals and was written off as a coral graveyard. This spurred Fragments of Hope into action. In 2006, Belize’s average live coral cover was a mere 11%, and two species of Acropora both the Staghorn and Elkhorn corals were listed as Critically Endangered, with reductions of about 98% in those populations regionally due to climate change, according to the International Union for Conservation and Nature(IUCN). 

Few consider the silent plight beneath the ocean's surface as the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef thrives beneath Belize's sapphire waters. Stretching 625 miles from Mexico to Honduras, it protects against storms, nurtures marine life, and fuels Belize's tourism.
Replenished Fused Staghorn coral colonies at Laughing Bird Caye National Park Site circa August 2023 (Photo by Fragments of Hope)

These coral species are pivotal reef builders and are considered among the most important in the Caribbean, offering a myriad of ecosystem services. Since 2006, Fragments of Hope’s efforts have brought remarkable results, with annual coral cover at LBCNP increasing by 10-20% approximately three years after initial out-planting. Multiple genotypes of each species boast an 89% survival rate. In 2006, 6% live coral cover was recorded at the project site, today, live coral cover has reached approximately 60%. 

Over  92,000 small fragments of coral were outplanted within the one-hectare shallow fringing reef since 2006. 

Emphasizing genetic diversity in restoration is what Carne attributes to much of the restored corals’ survival – even amid severe marine heat waves. 

In a BBC article, renowned coral geneticist, Iliana Baums said,”I think critical factors in the success of Fragments of Hope are the science-based approach, the vast local knowledge, and the dedication and persistence of Lisa.”

“What we have done over the years is ensure that – at Laughing Bird, for example, (we have) outplanted 20 different staghorn individuals, different genets, and over 30 of the elkhorn different individuals,” Carne said. These were sourced from nearby reefs in southern Belize. 

She further highlighted the importance of replicating the high diversity found in Belize’s wild coral patches, which has been FoH’s goal since 2007. 

“So going back to the bleaching now, this is why we have – you can see variability in some of the photographs, where in the same picture one is like bright white bleached and the other is or not as bad bleaching and that is also an indicator of a different individual, the bleaching patterns. So the whole point of what I’m getting to is why we’re still ok in some places is because we’ve already moved so many individuals, we already have a high level of genetic diversity for one site,” Carne explained.  

Few consider the silent plight beneath the ocean's surface as the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef thrives beneath Belize's sapphire waters. Stretching 625 miles from Mexico to Honduras, it protects against storms, nurtures marine life, and fuels Belize's tourism.
 Two different Elkhorn genets/ individuals ( same species) outplanted in 2010 at Laughing Bird Caye showing varying degrees of bleaching. Photo dated 29 July 2023 (By Fragments of Hopes) 

“The difference is if you just took the same staghorn and the same elkhorn and just made a million of them there would be no genetic diversity so if they happen to all bleach, you would lose everything,” Carne pointed out. 

The unique restoration work at Laughing Bird Caye is a testament to the dedication of the mainly Belizean Fragments of Hope team over the years. To date, at least 90 Belizeans have been trained in this advanced coral restoration methodology. The restoration work, a community-based effort led by FOH, fundamentally involved Placencia’s residents and locals from across the country.

For climate justice to be realized, communities must be empowered to address climate change impacts. LBCNP’s restoration epitomizes the power of science-backed action, local engagement, and straight-up determination.  

Few consider the silent plight beneath the ocean's surface as the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef thrives beneath Belize's sapphire waters. Stretching 625 miles from Mexico to Honduras, it protects against storms, nurtures marine life, and fuels Belize's tourism.
Living pillar coral at the shallow east site of Laughing Bird Caye circa August 2023, has not bleached at all yet this year, As of August 21, 2023 (Photo by Fragments of Hope) 

As the world confronts the enormity of climate change, places like Laughing Bird Caye and figures like Lisa Carne and Placencia’s residents showcase the possibility of cultivating resilience and hope, even in our warming seas.


This story was published by Climate Spotlight with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.

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Marco Lopez

Marco Lopez

Marco is a journalist, writer, and digital media consultant specialising in content creation. His career has encompassed a diverse range of multimedia roles, from his initial position as a Master Control Operator for Krem Television, culminating as the Editor-in-Chief at the Amandala Newspaper, reflecting his steady advancement through the ranks. He continues to contribute to the publication with a focus on writing climate change stories, sparked by the impassioned calls for action he witnessed at COP25. Outside of work, Marco is an avid bushman and self-proclaimed 5-star jungle chef.

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