This January, I embarked on a study abroad class to Belize with five other students, led by Dr. Kim de Mutsert and Dr. Joris van der Ham. This trip was full of adventures of snorkeling, spotting sharks, horseback riding, visiting Mayan ruins and searching for manatees, but it was also full of science! We spent two weeks assessing fish, corals, and encrusting organisms within three key ecosystems: coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves. We traveled to four different locations around the country, trying to determine if there were links between coastal development or protection status, and biodiversity or abundance of fish and encrusting species.
Coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to development because of their importance for natural resources and tourism. Development can impact these areas because impervious surfaces allow pollutants to more easily run off into the coastal ecosystem. Deforestation of mangroves for infrastructure adds insult to injury by reducing natural ecosystem services of trapping sediments and filtering out pollutants.
We collected data through snorkel surveys from three areas, Shark Ray Alley (two different sites near development, one protected and one unprotected), Gale’s Point (intermediate protection), and Half Moon Caye (protected) – with an interlude at a horse farm to experience the rainforest. We found that fish abundance was highest at Half Moon Caye, which had the most stringent protection levels. We also found that fish community composition also differed between the sites. Similarly, we found epiphyte communities also differed between the sites. While we again found that there was a difference in coral health between developed and pristine sites, coral health was actually lowest at the pristine location.
It is interesting that the less developed area of Half Moon key had more fish present but lower coral health. This may be because the depth of corals surveyed was lower, which leads to more wave damage and potential damage from people. Additionally, there is also a correlation between macroalgae cover and fish abundance, possibly driven by fish excretion.
Our analysis suggests that development is starting to impact the coastal environment of Belize. The results provide baseline information regarding the status of three key research areas; epiphytic organisms, habitat health, and fish communities. Belize is known for progressive environmental policies, and it has an opportunity to continue that legacy by recognizing impacts of development to coastal habitat and implementing best management practices in the future to prevent further degradation.
Enough about science, enjoy this compilation video of footage taken during our trip by Sammie Alexander!