Monday, June 17, 2013

Belize 2013 | A trip to the Pelican Cays

New England Aquarium coral biologist Randi Rotjan, PhD, and aquarist Joe Masi are in Belize monitoring coral health near Carrie Bow Cay. Tune in here for live updates about their research and animal encounters, and see pictures from previous expeditions herehere and here

Today's post comes from Joe.

Today we've decided to take a break from our transect work and head south to the Pelican Cays.  About an hour by boat, The Pelicans are an interesting ecosystem where coral reef, mangrove and seagrass habitat occur in extremely close proximity; even together at times.

What looks like a typical mangrove ecosystem from the top is really a mangrove/seagrass/reef below!

Tiny schooling fish dart in and out of mangrove roots and gorgonians in the Pelican Cays

A seafan amidst the mangrove roots provides the perfect perch for an arrow crab
The mustard hill coral (Porites astreoides) has a mushroom-like formation on this mangrove root,
surrounded by seagrass.

Unfortunately, what we saw was rather sad. Come to find out this area is a perfect example of how delicate these ecosystems truly are. In 1986, a disease called "white band" spread through the Caribbean causing massive mortality, primarily in Acropora coral species. In this particular area, most of the Acropora cervicornis died. Next, in 1998, a major coral bleaching event occurred because of extremely high water temperatures. In 2001 Hurricane Iris, a category 4, blew through Belizean waters and dropped a great deal of sediment on the reef and another drop in coral numbers was observed.  Finally, just as coral numbers started to ever-so-slowly recover, an earthquake in the Honduras Sea damaged the reef system again -- destroying what little coral recruitment and recovery had taken place (Aronson et al. 2012). This series of events has been well-documented by Aronson, Precht, McIntyre, and Toth over the years, and the most recent paper reported exactly what we saw with our own eyes: huge rubble fields (formerly Acropora cervicornis and Agaricia tenufolia), and very little coral growth.

A close-up of the Acropora rubble exposed by the 2009 earthquake

The rubble extends all the way down the slope (to the right)
It will be nice to be back on the barrier reef doing transects again, where there are hopeful signs of a recovering reef -- we've met many locals who believe "the reef is coming back, slowly."  Patience will be an important value on the road to recovery. These ecosystems took millions of years to form and will probably take many lifetimes to recover -- but I believe that if we succeed, it will have been worth the effort and the wait.

One of our monitoring transects on the Belize Barrier Reef, showing small but healthy corals amidst healthy reef fishes.

Pelican Cays history summarized from: Aronson, R. B., Precht, W.F., Macintyre, I.G., and Toth, L.T.  2012. Catastrophe and the life span of coral reefs. Ecological Society of America

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