This past May, my lab surveyed 20 reefs in Belize from Bacalar Chico in the north, down to the Sapodilla Keys in the south. It was a fantastic expedition. We had great weather and very calm seas. I was amazed at how wild much of coastal Belize still is. We saw manatees in mangrove creeks and red footed boobies on offshore keys. On some islands you can’t snorkel at night due to the hungry crocs. But I have to admit, the reefs were in pretty bad shape. Mainly from Hurricane Mitch, which struck Belize in 1998, but also from coral disease, bleaching (also in 98) and possibly local stressors.
We were also struck by the intensity of spear fishing, especially on reefs in the central Belizean Barrier Reef, even inside MPAS (but outside of the no-take zones) where fishing is allowed. One morning we surveyed a reef just of the southeastern tip of Glovers Atoll, inside a no-take zone. There was lots of macroalgae and few herbivores, despite the fully protected status. After pulling away from the site, just a few tens of meters outside the no-take zone, we encountered a young spearfisherman in a simple canoe. He was on the forereef, in the open ocean! The mother ship – an equally sketchy looking sailboat – was behind the reef crest. He was very friendly and came over to our boat to show off his catch; nearly 70 kilos of fish by 11 AM! Mostly parrotfish, triggerfish, angelfish and barracuda. The fish are filleted at sea and sold in the fish markets and to local restaurants as “fillet”, i.e., mystery meat.
Pretty depressing. The no-take zones are so small I imagine many fish wander out of them, unknowingly into the line of fire. But the Belizean government just passed a new law designed to protect parrotfish and other key grazers. From a post on the WCS website:
Belize is giving its beleaguered parrotfish, Nassau grouper, and other reef fish a chance to recover from years of overfishing. The national government and minister of agriculture and fisheries signed a sweeping set of new laws to protect the country’s extensive coral reefs…
The first of the new laws will protect parrotfish and other grazers, such as doctor and surgeonfish. These herbivores keep algae growth in check, enabling corals to flourish. In the past, fisherman did not target the grazing fish; rather, they caught mainly snappers and groupers. It was only when these species declined that they turned to the next tier of the food web, and parrotfish began to disappear.
We will be tracking the 20 sites to monitor how parrotfish populations change and whether this has cascading effects on corals, algae, etc. Interestingly, the when Melanie McField, a leading coral reef scientist in Belize and the director of the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People initiative showed a video of parrotfish grazing (which you can see here) to the minister of the environment, this is what it took to convince him of the role of these grazers in reef ecosystems. All the science in the world isn’t as powerful as a good You Tube video.