In Belize, marine charity Fragments of Hope is leading pioneering community conservation efforts to save the Belize Barrier Reef. Here’s how they’re saving corals, and how you can visit the Belize Barrier Reef to see their conservation efforts in person.
By Richard Collett
‘More corals=more fish’Fragments of Hope, Belize
In October 2001, Hurricane Iris smashed into Belize. 145-mile-per-hour winds ripped through the Belize Barrier Reef, splitting islands in two and devastating coral before causing millions of dollars of damage and claiming at least 24 lives.
Placencia, a small coastal community in the southern district of Stann Creek that’s dependent on its reefs for fishing and tourism, was caught in the eye of the storm. Coral coverage in the area was reduced in an instant to 6 per cent, and saving the reef seemed like a lost cause.
But marine biologist Lisa Carne believed otherwise. She began planting fragments of coral amongst the hurricane-ravaged reefs off Placencia, and through her non-profit, ‘Fragments of Hope’, began training local fishers and tour guides to regenerate the reefs. The persistent community-based conservation effort has now seen hundreds of thousands of fragments of coral planted in the area, and two decades on from Hurricane Iris, coral coverage is rebounding.
Now, Fragments of Hope has established community-based conservation sites across the country, and with every fragment of coral that’s planted, Belize is slowly but surely bringing its reef back to life.
The Belize Barrier Reef: An ecosystem under threat
“The most remarkable reef in the West Indies.”Charles Darwin, 1842
“Hurricane Iris was relatively small,” Carne said as we waited at the docks in Placencia Village, Belize for our boat ride to the Belize Barrier Reef. “But it was a category 4, and it hit Placencia directly. Laughing Bird Caye was split in half, and everyone just said ‘No, the reef’s dead. There’s no way you can save it’.”
Laughing Bird Caye National Park is located some 11 miles to the south of Placencia Village, which itself sits on a precarious spit of land overlooking the southern extremity of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Belize Barrier Reef. Laughing Bird Caye was in the direct path of Hurricane Iris. Coral coverage here dropped to 6 per cent, while in Placencia Village, Carne says 95 per cent of buildings and homes were destroyed.
The area is part of the Belize Barrier Reef, which at 190 miles extends along almost the entire length of the Belizean coastline. It contributes an estimated 15 per cent of Belize’s GDP according to the World Wildlife Fund and provides an income to some 200,000 people in a country with a population of 400,000.
UNESCO states on its Belize Barrier Reef listing that there are 450 islands and atolls in the Belize Barrier Reef, and that Belizean waters are home to over 500 species of fish, 246 species of marine flora, and a range of marine life (much of it both endemic and endangered) that includes manatees, three species of sea turtles, crocodiles, rays, sharks, and more.
Importantly, there are also approximately 65 species of stony coral in the Belize Barrier Reef. Corals are the building blocks of the marine ecosystem, offering shelter and sustenance for marine life, protecting land from erosion, and providing fishing and tourism resources for humans.
Carne is originally from the USA, but she’s lived and worked in Belize since 1995. She knew early on in her marine biology career that Belize’s fragile coral reefs were in danger. By 1998, bleaching events caused by increasing water temperatures had reduced coral reefs by almost 50 per cent, while bottom trawling, overfishing, pollution, and resource exploitation were all taking their toll. Then Hurricane Iris struck in 2001.
“After that,” said Carne as our boat arrived at the dock. “No one was interested in saving the reef.”
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A single piece of broken Elkhorn coral in the seagrass
‘The coastal area of Belize is an outstanding natural system consisting of the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, offshore atolls, several hundred sand cays, mangrove forests, coastal lagoons and estuaries.’UNESCO World Heritage Site Listing
“I was in San Pedro, in Northern Belize,” said Carne as the spray whipped over the bow of the boat. “And I saw a single piece of broken Elkhorn coral alive in the seagrass.”
Elkhorn is a Caribbean Acroporid, a type of stony coral that’s listed as critically endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Carne explained that Elkhorn and other similar corals like Staghorn were once found all over the Caribbean, but population numbers dropped dramatically by up to 98 per cent from the late 1980s through to the 2000s.
Elkhorn can reproduce both sexually, and asexually. If a piece of Elkhorn breaks or fragments it can survive and start a new colony wherever the tide might take it. The fragment of Elkhorn that Carne saw in the seagrass in San Pedro appeared to be perfectly healthy, and this was the moment she was inspired.
“I thought that perhaps we could regrow coral reefs by transplanting coral from other locations,” explained Carne. “I thought it was my great idea,” Carne added. “But actually, someone else had already published a paper.”
Fellow marine biologist Dr. Austin Bowden-Kerby (also from the US) had already published a pioneering methodology that explained how to transplant healthy coral cuttings in order to restore coral reefs. Carne began experimenting with this methodology at Laughing Bird Caye National Park, but as she said with disbelief: “It took four years to get any funding.”
Given the dire state of Placencia’s reefs, and at the time, the untested nature of coral restoration techniques, Carne struggled to find financial backing for her restoration project.
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Fragments of Hope, Belize: Community conservation
Conservation in Placencia has always had a community focus, and in 1994, the community successfully lobbied the government to protect Laughing Bird Caye as a national park. Then, as Carne began transplanting coral to the destroyed reef, it was local guides, divers, and fishers who gave her progress updates as they became more involved in the restoration project. Soon enough, said Carne: “We started to see some beautiful Elkhorn coral at Laughing Bird Caye.”
In 2006, Carne received a small grant that allowed her to establish the first experimental coral nursery, where coral cuttings could be grown in situ on frames placed on the seabed. In 2009, more funding allowed Carne to officially launch a ‘Coral Nursery Project’ in Placencia, and then in 2013, she founded the nonprofit organization ‘Fragments of Hope’.
Fragments of Hope now provides the training necessary under Belizean law to handle coral, and the nonprofit teaches local fishers, tour guides, divers, and other coastal stakeholders such as students and government workers how to cut, lay, and monitor coral cuttings.
Fragments of Hope also provides educational materials for schools, raises awareness of the marine environment, and promotes alternative income streams (such as tourism) to fishers. Fragments of Hope describes itself as ‘community-based’, and at the core of its ethos is one simple fact: ‘More coral equals more fish’.
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Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, Belize
Laughing Bird Caye National Park is the original restoration site, but it’s not the destination we were visiting. Fragments of Hope also oversees 26 other restoration sites across Placencia and Belize, and instead, Carne dropped me off with a mask and snorkel on a small, sandy island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea as she headed off elsewhere on a dive survey with visiting scientists from Miami.
This was the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, where a solitary palm tree swayed in the breeze. I’d been left in the capable hands of tour guide Andria Villanueva, who has been working with Carne for the better part of a decade. Villanueva explained that the coral nursery we are going to snorkel around was established in the marine reserve here in 2015.
“Most people in Placencia are involved with the sea somehow,” said Villanueva as we readied our masks, snorkels, and fins. “First it was fishing, and now it’s fishing and tourism.” Villanueva was born in Placencia in the 1970s, and within her lifetime, she said she’s seen marine biodiversity visibly reduced. Coral restoration, though, is bringing vibrancy back to the water, and Villanueva was keen to show me how it all works up close.
After swimming across a shallow bed of seagrass, the water deepened and we were surrounded by coral. There were parrotfish, barracuda, grey angelfish, and large groups of squid darting around the coral. Villaneuva guided me over the reef until we arrived at a large table-like structure on the seabed. This was an in situ coral nursery, where coral is left to grow until they’re large and healthy enough to be planted around the growing reef. It’s a slow process, but one that’s beginning to rejuvenate the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve as it did Laughing Bird Caye National Park.
Back on the island, Choc Florencio, a local ranger working for the Southern Environmental Association (SEA), had arrived by boat to collect conservation fees. “Welcome to the island,” said Florencio, before he explained how the reserve we are snorkelling in has been designated as a no-take zone. Florencio’s job is to help enforce this, although he also explained that as the organization he works for is non-governmental, they have limited resources to do so.
“We need more enforcement,” said Florencio. “Illegal fishers come here during the full moon when the fish are spawning around the reserve.” Although the Belizean government is beginning to step up to conservation challenges, by banning bottom trawling and making offshore oil exploration illegal, for example, much of the work that’s being done to protect Belize’s natural assets is carried out by nonprofits.
It’s not easy, though, when the Belizean government has itself been criticized for proposing plans to build more cruise ship terminals by Belize Barrier Reef, while islands like the one we were standing on are slowly disappearing due to rising sea levels and erosion. Just weeks after my visit, the Belize Fisheries Department announced that the Gladden Spit and South Silk Cayes Marine Reserve was affected by unauthorized ‘land reclamation activities’ in April 2022, which SEA had been unable to stop.
“The coral restoration projects are helping a lot though,” said Florencio. “Without the coral, we wouldn’t have anything to keep the fish around. The problem is, we need more coral!”
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A hopeful future for the Belize Barrier Reef
Carne picked us up in the afternoon, and on the way back to the mainland we stopped off in an area of seagrass that’s a known haven for larger species of marine life. As soon as we jumped into the water we encountered a sea turtle, eagle rays, and a shy nurse shark hiding in the seagrass.
The long-term coral coverage data demonstrates that Fragments of Hope has become one of the world’s most successful coral regeneration projects, not least because they’ve planted upwards of 85,000 fragments of coral at Laughing Bird Caye National Park alone.
“We recently used drones to quantify the coral coverage at Laughing Bird Caye, and the surveys have shown how successful the project has been in just over a decade,” said Carne, referencing the official start of the Coral Nursery Project in 2009. “The coverage has gone from a 6 per cent average after Hurricane Iris, to 70 per cent coverage in certain sites today.” Carne also told me that of the first coral cuttings she planted back in 2006, 80 per cent were still alive when she last surveyed them in November 2021.
As we headed back to Placencia Village, though, Carne notes that the project is not without its critics. One major critique is the lack of genetic diversity produced through asexual reproduction, a problem that Fragments of Hope are now addressing.
The marine scientists Carne was diving with were from SECORE, an international organization working to save coral reefs worldwide. Inspired by Fragments of Hope’s success, they are providing the resources necessary to raise and nurture coral through sexual, rather than asexual propagation. It’s a process known as coral seeding, and it’s a task I’m informed is much, much trickier than you’d imagine.
Through persistent community-based conservation, coral coverage at Laughing Bird Caye National Park is now higher than it was before Hurricane Iris struck. Fragments of Hope have begun overseeing restoration sites across the country, and since 2020 they’ve begun working in three marine reserves in northern Belize at the request of the government, including sites near tourist spots like Caye Caulker and San Pedro. If genetic diversity can now also be improved with the assistance of SECORE, then the future of Belize’s Barrier Reef could tentatively be said to be hopeful.
When we docked in Placencia, I asked Villanueva how important Fragments of Hope’s work is for Belize. “Coral restoration brings back life under the water,” she said. “It’s a win-win situation. We put the coral back, we start seeing more fish, and that makes jobs and diverts the fishermen. We should have started caring about our reef a long time back!”
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How to visit Fragments of Hope and the Belize Barrier Reef
Fragments of Hope is a non-profit, community-based conservation organisation that operates multiple coral restoration projects across the Belize Barrier Reef. They grow, plant and restore fragments of coral in many of the reef’s major tourist sites, including Laughing Bird Caye National Park.
Laughing Bird Caye National Park was the original restoration site, and you can visit the restored reefs on a day trip from Placencia Village, on the Placencia Peninsula. Fragments of Hope often work with the Seahorse Dive Shop, which organises regular diving and snorkelling trips to the marine national park. Seahorse Dive Shop can also organise trips to Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, where you might just see a few turtles, manta rays and nurse sharks.
Now that their conservation efforts have been extended across much of the Belize Barrier Reef, there are several notable locations where you’ll encounter the work they’ve been doing. These include:
- Laughing Bird Caye National Park
- Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve
- Tobacco Caye
- Calabash Caye
- Caye Caulker Marine Reserve
- Hol Chan Marine Reserve
- Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve
There are multiple dive and tour operators in major tourist sites like Caye Caulker and Hol Chan that can facilitate trips to the Belize Barrier Reef, where you’ll see coral rebounding. The best time of year to visit the Belize Barrier Reef is the dry season, between December and May. Visit between March and May and you’ll also have an opportunity to see whale sharks in the area.
Belize Barrier Reef FAQ
Keep reading, for more information on the Belize Barrier Reef and how to visit.
Where is the Belize Barrier Reef?
The Belize Barrier Reef is located off the coast of Belize, in Central America. It runs for roughly 190 miles from north to south and is a continuation of the larger Mesoamerican Barrier Reef which starts further north toward Cancun. You can find the reef anywhere from a few hundred meters to 25 miles off the coast of Belize.
How big is the Belize Barrier Reef?
The Belize Barrier is roughly 190 miles long and is part of the longer 560-mile-long Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. The Belize Barrier Reef comprises some 450 individual cayes and atolls, within an approximate area of 370 square miles. It’s the second largest barrier reef in the world when you include it within the wider Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system.
Is the Belize Barrier Reef endangered?
Like all coral reef systems, the Belize Barrier Reef is endangered. There are multiple threats, including natural disasters such as hurricanes and man-made issues such as coral bleaching events which are linked to temperature rises. The Belize Barrier Reef has certain protections in Belize, and the country has banned bottom trawling and drilling for oil within 1 mile of the reef.
There are also seven protected marine reserves which you can visit on boat tours from the mainland. These are:
- Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve
- Blue Hole Natural Monument
- Half Moon Caye Natural Monument
- South Water Caye Marine Reserve
- Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve
- Laughing Bird Caye National Park
- Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve
Where’s the best place to visit the Belize Barrier Reef?
That’s subjective! I visited the Belize Barrier Reef from Placencia Village, which is set up for diving and snorkelling tours. You can also visit easily from Caye Caulker, while trips to the Belize Blue Hole are organised from most tourist destinations in Belize.
When’s the best time to visit the Belize Barrier Reef?
The best time to visit the Belize Barrier Reef is between December and May when visibility is best. This is the dry season, and the best visibility occurs at the end of the dry season.
What can I see on the Belize Barrier Reef?
Aside from rebounding coral reefs, you can see hundreds of species of fish on the Belize Barrier Reef. There are also large marine species such as sharks, rays, turtles, dolphins, whales, and manatees.
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