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April 17, 2024

How Belize Is Restoring Coral Reefs: An Ecosystem On The Edge


Here are three ways Belize is safeguarding its natural heritage: the 185-mile Belize Barrier Reef that cuddles our coastline as the second largest reef system in the world.

Among the most vulnerable habitats on the planet, coral reefs have exceptional levels of biodiversity and provide important social and ecological services, including food, coastal protection, recreation, tourism, and cultural connections—but it’s an ecosystem on the edge. Enigmatic to many, these living, breathing organisms are architects of the reef: three-dimensional foundations house a kaleidoscope of life, offering refuge to more than 25% of all marine species despite covering less than 1% of the ocean off the coasts of 100 countries or territories. 

Considering that an estimated 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 km of the coast—nearly 2.4 billion people, the threat of losing coral threatens more than biodiversity, recreation, income, protection, or sustenance. In places like Belize, the loss of coral reefs threatens a way of life. Revitalization is the goal. Collective action is how we’ll make it happen. Here are three ways Belize is safeguarding its natural heritage: the 185-mile Belize Barrier Reef that cuddles our coastline as the second largest reef system in the world.

Architects of the Reef

“Wait, coral is an animal?,” is the typical question once learning that the reef is actually a close cousin to anemones and jellyfish. In essence, yes: cylindrically shaped, soft-bodied, and immobile, hard or stony corals secrete calcium carbonate that we perceive as reefs today, but the polyps that live on these skeletal structures are very much alive. And despite not being reef builders, soft corals are just as vital—more commonly resembling sea fans, trees, and grasses that sway in the waves. 

One snorkel below Belize’s blue horizon, and you’ll spot both. 

Thriving in warm, shallow seas, this also makes them largely vulnerable: higher water temperatures, plastic pollution, chemical runoff and unsustainable development all threaten the health of these color-inducing symbiotic algae. 

But in a warming climate, coral bleaching is one of the most significant signs reefs are in trouble, with repeated bleaching events leaving swatches of reefs crippled to recover. Belizeans are born connected to the water—a shared abundance. Herein also lies the solution: community-based programs and protective laws to address local stressors to reduce vulnerability and build resiliency.  

A ban on harvesting algae-eating parrotfish improved coral cover

In April 2009, the voluntary ban on the fishing of parrotfish became national law when the Government of Belize passed a new set of regulations (Fisheries Regulations 2009) to protect overfished species. After all, parrotfish spend 90% of their day cleaning the reef of algae—ultimately helping corals grow and thrive, and healthy reefs support more fish in the sea. 

Coral restoration and propagation brought one nursery back from the brink

While many may have sentenced the coral rubble aftermath of Hurricane Iris in 2001 irreparable, visiting marine biologist Lisa Carne thought otherwise—later founding the first nursery of its kind in Belize and one of the world’s most successful coral regeneration programs ever. Fragments of Hope, a nonprofit organization based in Placencia, has since successfully replanted more than 86,000 corals at Laughing Bird Caye alone and more than 160,000 corals nationwide in over seven different marine protected areas, according to Carne. Hand in hand with buy-in from local communities, including stakeholders to be the reef’s eyes and ears, public awareness has bolstered Fragment of Hope’s efforts to reduce Belize’s reef mortality.  

Now law, Belize requires its people’s participation in decision-making around this precious resource 

In a 2012 public referendum, 96% of voters supported the restoration and protection of reef systems. With UNESCO’s help, the government began to work with scientists and grassroots and environmental organizations to tighten regulations, preserve mangrove habitats, and enact more oversight of reef systems. More recently, in November 2023, the People’s Referendum on Offshore Oil in Belize became a landmark new law—a direct response to the voices of 22,090 Belizean voters who called for legislative amendments that would require a referendum should the government contemplate lifting the moratorium on offshore oil exploration. The amendment has laid the foundation for a profound shift in people’s participation in our Belizean democracy.

With the reef inextricable from traditional practices and a way of life passed down over generations, Belize shows that when conditions are right and efforts are well placed, success is possible. For the generations still to come, a thriving, abundant sea is possible—and rebuilding fish populations can be our legacy.