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In the 39 years since the Smithsonian established the Carrie Bow Cay Field Station in Belize, the coral reefs that attracted scientists there have changed dramatically. Scientists working on reefs throughout the world have witnessed declines in reef health, as evidenced by a drop in the extent of living coral on the reef, reduced diversity of reef organisms, and an increase in coral bleaching, disease, and mortality. These disturbing trends have been driven by a host of stressors, including coastal development, overfishing, and pollution on a local scale, while increased sea temperatures due to climate change affect corals on a global scale. And the effects show no sign of slowing down. In 2008, 53% of coral reefs in Belize were described as "poor or critical"; by 2010 that figure increased to 70%, according to Healthy Reefs Initiative reports (www.healthyreefs.org). Time is running out to slow the decline and prevent catastrophic loss of these vitally important ecosystems.

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A diver counts and measures coral colonies on an assessment transect.

While reversing the effects of global climate change may be a long-term endeavor, governments do have the ability to slow overfishing on reefs in the short term. Overfishing a reef causes a cascading effect of ecological interactions that can have direct impacts on the ability for corals to survive. There is evidence from other reserves that protection from fishing can reverse the direction of an ecological cascade and may even increase the reefs' resilience against stressful events. The government of Belize is taking action by establishing more marine protected areas than any other country in the Mesoamerican region. The most recent marine reserve, the South Water Cay Marine Reserve (SWCMR), encompasses the reefs and mangroves around Carrie Bow Cay.

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High relief spur near Carrie Bow Cay.

 

 

 

 

From a scientific standpoint, a new marine reserve is an excellent opportunity to study how marine protected areas might promote the regeneration of corals and fish populations and the Smithsonian's Caribbean Coral Reef Ecosystems (CCRE) program is well-positioned to facilitate the work. Soon after SWCMR was established, CCRE staff, in collaboration with Dr. Randi Rotjan, a reef ecologist at the New England Aquarium, began collecting baseline data and developing a monitoring plan that will measure how this reserve affects the marine habitat. This new plan was intentionally designed to take advantage of the wealth of historical data from past CCRE scientists and to remain comparable to contemporary monitoring programs underway at marine reserves around the world. The collaborative team established permanent monitoring transects on coral reefs both inside and outside of the reserve boundary. Each transect was initially surveyed in June 2011 and will be re-surveyed bi-annually for years to come. The monitoring program will measure and compare the diversity and abundance of key reef organisms over time.

This new marine reserve and the collaborative efforts of the CCRE program have the potential to influence and measure change in the status of the coral reefs of Belize. On a global scale, the knowledge gained from this body of research could help enhance our understanding of marine ecosystems and inform management of marine protected areas around the world, which are just the type of far-reaching results that define Smithsonian science.

You can read more about CCRE's Reef Assessment Program in our monitoring plan: