Healthy coral at the Blue Hole in Lighthouse Reef Atoll off the coast of Belize. Photo by Justin Catanoso
This represents my first ocean-related climate change story, based on reporting in early March 2016 some 50 miles off the coast of Belize. Invited by my friend and mentor Miles Silman, a Wake Forest tropical ecologist, I joined his coral ecology students over Spring Break and snorkeled every day. My story for Mongabay.com is here. Summary by my editor Glenn Scherer:
Lighthouse Reef Atoll in Belize is part of the Caribbean Sea’s Mesoamerican reef system, the world’s second largest. It is stubbornly resilient, and one of the last best places in the western Atlantic in need of total preservation. But virtually no action is happening to conserve it.
To save it, the entire reef needs to be a “no take zone,” allowing minimal livelihood fishing by local families, but banning the Guatemalan fishermen who the government of Belize has licensed to legally fish for sharks — exported for shark fin soup to China, at $100 per bowl.
The only thing that can save this World Heritage site is full protection: a ban on all large-scale commercial fishing, and the encouragement of eco-tourism to support the local people economically and to generate the funds needed for enforcement and high-tech monitoring.
Belize cannot, and will not likely, do the job alone. If this aquatic treasure is to be preserved for the future, the international conservation community will need to awake to its likely loss, and rally vigorously to the cause of permanently protecting it — now, before it is gone.
Miles Silman snorkeling. Photo by Justin Catanoso
Starfish in the sea grass. Photo by Justin Catanoso
Wake Forest ecology student learn first hand the perils of plastic on Long Caye. Photo by Justin Catanoso
During the week of March 7, 2015 — Spring Break — my wife and I traveled with a group of Wake Forest University students and faculty in a coral ecology class. Arriving in Belize City late morning, we all boarded a boat called the Great White and piloted 47 miles into the Caribbean to Lighthouse Reef Atoll, a remote and mostly untouched set of six islands on the world’s second-largest coral reef. We set up home for the week on Long Caye (2.5 miles long; 0.9 milewide) and the Itza Lodge, a fabulous, rustic eco-lodge used mostly by university groups and some intrepid tourists.
The beauty of the coral reef on Lighthouse Reef Atoll is unsurpassed. Photo by Justin Catanoso
My goal journalistically was to return with a story tied to the underwater marvels we saw while snorkeling daily in the clear turquoise water in the Atoll — including the famous Great Blue Hole. Instead, I came back with a heartbreaking story about our voluminous, reckless use-and-disposal of all manners of plastics, and how it is marring a place as beautiful, pristine and remote as Long Caye.