Conserve the reef, remove invasive species, surveys

luxury family travel Belize

Our planet is 70% ocean. Coral reefs make up only 0.2% of those oceans, however they are home to 25% of all marine fish! Compared to land, it is very difficult to collect data from the ocean! You need special skill sets and equipment and you may have to travel 1000’s of miles to get from one eco system to the next! This is why the scientific community recognizes the need to work with non-scientists in order to help collect important data.

Why help in Belize?

•The great diving on the 2nd biggest barrier reef in the world

•The reef is an UNESCO world heritage site

•Belize has a focus on conservation and responsible tourism

•It’s known as a safe destination for tourists

•It is known as an adventure destination

It is English speaking

Ways to help:

1. Coral Reef Monitoring

Employing simple techniques that non-scientific divers can easily master, we aim to collect scientifically robust data allowing us to monitor and report on our coral reefs health, with a comprehensive assessment of the health of coral reefs. We have fine tuned the “indicator species” observed based on the ecological and economical value and sensitivity to anthropogenic disturbances. A new aspect to the methodology is counting the male and female Parrot fish, while still including Groupers, Surgeon fish, Butterfly fish, Grunts, Snappers, and the invasive Lionfish. Invertebrates, coral bleaching/disease, trash and coral damage will be recorded and the substrate composition thoroughly mapped.

What will you be doing?

The Team Scientist or Team Leader lays the 300 ft (100m) transect line. There are 3 buddy teams, one for fish, one for invertebrates and one for substrates. The fish survey is conducted first in order that the fish do not get disturbed prior to the survey. One buddy times whilst the other counts the indicator fish in 15 ft (5 metre) cube areas for 1.5 minutes.  This is then repeated along the line. The next team surveys invertebrates with one buddy on each side of the line. They count the invertebrates inside a 7,5 ft (2.5 m) width on each side of the transect line. This requires looking under rocks and ledges and into holes in order to find the species. The 3rd team counts the substrates. One buddy has a plumb line with a small weight on the end; the diver drops the line onto markings at each 1.5 ft (50cm) interval and gives a hand sign to their buddy who then records the data onto a slate. The Team Scientist conducts a site description which includes any coral damage, anchor damage, disease etc. Some of the fascinating marine life you will encounter along the way includes whale sharks and lobsters.

2. Coral Watch

There is a simple, non-invasive method for the monitoring of coral bleaching, and assessment of coral health. Other attempts to monitor coral bleaching often involve costly satellite-born technologies, are restricted to locations researchers are working in and often require sampling of live tissue for physiological analysis. The Coral Watch coral reef monitoring approach using simple methodology is the first attempt to provide useful data on a relatively large scale with the help of an inexpensive, ‘user friendly’ and non-invasive device.

What will you be doing?

Divers are trained how to recognize the difference between coral bleaching and coral disease and how to identify paling, part bleached and whole bleached coral.

Using the rover diver technique, divers use an Ecomar coral watch slate to tally their findings during the first 20 minutes of the dive. The divers submit the data directly onto the Ecomar website after the dive.

All submitted data will be analysed and made available on the project’s website meaning that data will be available for different regions of the world. This will make it possible to compare the condition of many different reefs at any one point in time, as well as the condition of a single reef over time.

3. Lionfish removal

Lionfish are indigenous in the Indio pacific oceans and the Red sea but not the Atlantic Caribbean belt. In their natural habitat they have a diet that is not a threat to the environment; there are many more varieties of species and they have natural predators. However, in the Atlantic Caribbean oceans they are feeding on species that are key to the environment such as juvenile groupers, parrotfish and crustaceans. Lionfish are voracious predators and can consume huge percentages of juvenile fish recruits. In thirty minutes one lionfish was observed eating more than twenty fish!

And they breed rapidly – they release around 20,000 eggs every 4 days!

Scientists are predicting that lionfish will have a grave impact on Belize’s already stressed stocks of fish and lobster and could spell potential disaster to Belize’s marine habitats.

How can you help?

You can take a special lionfish spear on most dives and removing as many as we can, which is great fun! After capture, the lionfish data is taken and the stomach contents are analyzed and sometimes the fish themselves wind up on our dinner plates, they are really tasty!

Many countries in the Caribbean are developing response plans to mitigate the negative impacts lionfish have on native fish populations and the coral reef ecosystems.  Belize has a program in place with EcoMar who are working with the National Coral Reef Monitoring Network’s Lionfish Committee and the Belize Fisheries department on developing a National Lionfish Response Plan. They are currently discussing strategies on how to remove these invasive creatures and you can play a part in this.

4. Whale Shark Survey

Whale Sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, they grow up to 46ft (15m), weighing up to 15 tons! They are migratory creatures and it has been estimated that they may live up to 100-150 years! They eat plankton and small fish and are harmless to people. Diving with whale sharks in Belize is one of the most rewarding experiences when you are diving in the Caribbean.

The Barrier Reef in Belize attracts one of the largest concentrations of whale sharks in the world. The presence of the whale sharks is dependent on the health of the spawning fish aggregations.

Like many of its shark relatives, whale sharks are in decline and they may soon face extinction if we don’t act now. Whale sharks’ gentle nature makes them an easy fisheries target for meat and fins, highly valued in the international shark fin trade.

Project AWARE Whale Shark Project engages divers and snorkelers in whale shark data collection efforts in partnership with the UK based Shark Trust. The Whale Shark Sightings Database allows you to report your sighting information online. This public, photo identification database supports photo and sighting data comparisons by scientists, researchers, and others interested in preserving this vulnerable species. Photographic identification is a powerful non invasive technique for studying shark life histories and movement in their natural environment. This is especially important for a highly migratory species like the Whale Shark.

What will you be doing?

Nobody can guarantee a Whale Shark encounter however, if you are lucky enough to experience a Whale Shark we ask you to record as much information as possible, and take photos (without a flash). Displaying a myriad of pale blue spots and stripes, each whale shark has its own unique pattern. Divers and snorkelers are asked to photograph and make notes about each whale shark’s individual skin pattern, size and other identifying factors. Following each sighting you will be asked to submit the sightings data and images to an online database.

In order to participate in the Whale Shark project you must pledge to follow the Whale Shark code of conduct.

The Whale Shark season is officially March through to June. However, they can be spotted throughout the year.

5. Lobster Surveys

The Caribbean Spiny Lobster is a high commercial value species throughout the Caribbean. Over the past few decades the populations have been seriously depleted due to over-fishing. During the closed season in Belize of February through to June, lobsters are banned from fishing and from restaurant menus. Together with the Belize Department of Fisheries, we monitor the population of lobsters in the patch reefs (where the fishermen are most likely to retrieve lobsters by free diving), as well as the deep waters on the continental shelf. The surveys conducted in the shallow patch reefs give an idea of the density of lobsters in the region and the catch per unit effort data.

The primary reason for surveying the continental shelf is to gain the male to female ratios and number of females carrying eggs. There are a number of specific locations where female lobsters gather in order to release their eggs. These biologically important locations require protection in order to sustain the lobster populations.

What will you be doing?

The lobster survey is conducted using the rover diver technique. You go down in groups of about 6 divers with the person at the bottom of the line at about 75 ft (25m) and the person at the top of the line on the top of the wall. Two people carry slates and a measuring stick.   We move along the wall at the same pace for 15 minutes (plus stoppage time). Each lobster has to be coaxed out of its hole using the stick. First we ascertain what sex the lobster is, then we measure the total length and tail length and if the lobster is a female we look to see if it is carrying eggs. We do the same for about another 15 mins on the top of the wall with the deepest diver moving to the top of the line and the person who was on the top remaining where they were. Upon surfacing we note the gps co-ordinates so that we can ascertain the total area covered.

6. Queen Conch monitoring

The queen conch is a large marine mollusk whose scientific name strombus gigas  means giant spiral shell. After mating, which occurs July to October, females lay long egg masses with about half a million embryos, although as in the case of most marine organisms, the older and larger the conch becomes the more eggs it can produce.

It takes about three to five years for the Queen conch to become fully mature and be considered an adult.  Within three years, the conch can grow up to two pounds in weight and eight inches in length. The average shell length will increase about three inches per year in its active growing stage.  The adult conch can be identified by its heavy shell which has a flattened flare on one end.  Therefore, the older the conch gets, the thicker its shell will be. A conch can live up to forty years if it is not harvested by its main predator during its adult stage, humans. Conch has been over-fished in Belize because of its high commercial value.

There is much debate at the moment as to whether conch is breeding in the shallow or deep waters.  Theories have suggested that both are true, increasing numbers of conch are being forced into the deep to breed because of the increase of fishing pressure.

In order to monitor the migration patterns of these species, a number of plastic cable ties with individual numbers on have been placed around each conch, and every subsequent observation is recorded. This may indicate not only the migration patterns of conch between different depths it can also record the directional migration patterns associated with the anticlockwise currents.

What will you be doing?

First we will locate the breeding grounds. The divers go down in buddy pairs to a sandy area where there is a fairly large conch population. One buddy has some calipers and a slate and the other a large measuring device and some tags.  We record the lip thickness (this determines age and sexual maturity), size of spiral, size of conch, habitat, depth and tag number. When the tagging project is completed, we conduct a number of conch survey dives each week throughout the year where we locate the conch and note the number and location.

The information assimilated for this project is allowing us to map out the key biologically important areas of the Marine Reserve, in terms of conch populations and activity.  In time this information will be highly beneficial to the government in implementing the conservation and preservation zones.  Once this has been enforced there should be a general increase in conch numbers for the marine reserve and connected areas.

Non-divers can learn to dive on this lovely rustic island.

Accommodation in Barrier Reef

Barrier Reef

Second in size only to its Australian cousin, the Belize Reef runs the entire length of its coastline. There are hundreds of small islands, known as Cayes, which vary in size and are ripe for exploring. The diving and snorkeling opportunities are almost endless.