The country's majestic corals were destroyed when Hurricane Iris struck southern Belize in 2001. Fortunately, the coral reef was brought back to life after a ten-year restoration project.

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(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

Hurricane Iris

(Photo : Stein egil liland)

Hurricane Iris destroyed the Laughing Bird Caye National Park off the coast of Belize in 2001. Corals were crushed into rubble when the caye broke in two. Before the hurricane, the reef was teeming with rays, corals, lobsters, crabs, sponges, and sea turtles.

Corals are stripped of the algae that make up their bond with the coral polyps during bleaching events. Few corals survive when their algae recover but often die when their algae are taken away. The world's second-longest coral is found inside the world's second-longest barrier reef.

Hurricane Iris was a disaster. It did not only destroy corals, but it also uprooted their structure, making recovery much more difficult.

Coral Restoration

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Carne wanted to start restoring the reefs by planting corals, but it took her a long time to get someone to fund her proposal. The seabed was covered with reef debris and encrusting sponges, and there were few live corals, schools of fish, or lobsters. Carne started pitching her revival plans in 2002, but she had no success for many years. Then, in 2006, the US declared Caribbean acroporid corals extinct, and Carne's plan was accepted by a local funder.

In a trial, Carne transplanted 19 elkhorn coral fragments from the main barrier reef. The hurricane caused a series of bleaching cases, but not anything was lost. Carne's team would cut corals into 10cm (4 inches) fragments, raise them in a coral nursery until they were 30cm (12 inches) long, and then plant them in the reef. The process of rebuilding a reef is not as easy as it can seem, and it entails a lot of trial and error and learning as you go. David Vaughan, a marine biologist, discovered in 2015 that the smaller the object, the faster it develops. This "micro-fragmentation" technique "significantly improved the reconstruction work."

In the Laughing Bird Caye National Park, over 85,000 corals have been planted. Long-term analysis showed that 89 percent of the animals survived after 14 years, far greater than the average survival rate after regeneration. Fragments of Hope created a coral conservation training course approved by the Belize Fisheries Department and has since certified over 70 Belizeans. According to reports, corals in Belize as a whole are on the rise, rising from 11 percent of the seafloor surveyed in 2006 to 17 percent in 2018. This is due to natural regeneration. According to Maya Trotz, a board member of Fragment of Hope, the restoration jobs complement local people's incomes from tourism and fishing.

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Spreading Awareness

(Photo : Olga Tsai on Unsplash)

According to Trotz, "over 2,500 have been sent to schools across Belize" to help teach young people about the coral. Carne founded a non-profit community-based organization in Belize in 2013.

Belize's coral reef conservation efforts are unusual because they concentrate on shallow reefs in a sparsely inhabited environment. Belize prohibited all shrimp trawling, the use of gill nets, and off-shore oil drilling, and its grazing fish families were completely protected. Coastal growth has gone unregulated, with mangrove cayes being ruined despite government controls. New cruise ports are also being planned. The coral reef at Laughing Bird Caye National Park, which was once a debris cemetery, is now bustling with life after 15 years of conservation efforts.

Continued Efforts

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Staghorn and elkhorn corals have resurfaced on the seafloor, breeding and sheltering a variety of species. Before the storm, the reef was home to a plethora of giant lobsters, crabs, eagle rays, and sea turtles. Parrotfish and surgeon fish have since returned to graze the algae, allowing the corals to branch even ever further. Fragments of Hope organized exchanges, research visits, and seminars throughout the Caribbean after Covid-19 to share an experience. People came to learn how to choose a suitable reconstruction site based on a lengthy list of requirements.

(Photo : Egor Kamelev)

Owing to climate change and increasingly intense and severe hurricanes, coral bleaching events are getting more serious each year. In the "business as normal" case, few corals are expected to thrive if global greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced. There are coral regeneration programs in more than 50 countries, but none have reached the scope or lasted as long as Belize's.

"Only one or two people were doing coral regeneration when we first began. Nowadays, though, everybody is doing it. It's like yoga now," she said. 

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