Friday, May 30, 2014

Belize 2014: The Reef Beckons

Aquarium coral biologist Randi Rotjan, PhD, is in Belize studying changes in the reefs off Carrie Bow Cay. Also from the New England Aquarium, diver Sarah Taylor and aquarist Pete Gawne are part of this year's expedition. Over the next couple weeks, she'll be posting from the tropics, sharing pictures and stories from this familiar spot. Learn about previous expeditions in 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2010.

It’s that time of year again. Spring has (finally) sprung, college semesters have ended, and we’re off to Belize to do some research and monitor the health of the reef inside and outside of a no-take Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Belize. As an unintended side effect, we’ve also shocked our bodies from a cool rainy New England May to a hot, tropical clime.

Carrie Bow Cay (Photo: John Brown | BBC cinematographer)

Our team this year consists of New England Aquarium aquarists Pete Gawne and Sarah Taylor (this is Sarah’s first trip!), Aquarium research scientist Randi Rotjan, and Smithsonian staffers Zach Foltz and Scott Jones. The New England Aquarium and the Smithsonian have been collaborating on a reef MPA monitoring project since 2011, and this trip marks our 7th monitoring trip over 3.5 years.

A loggerhead sea turtle spotted during a previous expedition.

MPAs are an important conservation tool to protect habitat – given the variance and uncertainty of global change, MPAs can serve as a local refuge from stressors that are known to interact with climate-related stressors. Stress from overfishing, coastal development, pollution, and other measures of habitat destruction all contribute to coral reef decline. In 2010, Belize declared a no-take MPA called the Southwater Caye Marine Reserve, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main question we are hoping to answer is whether the no-take designation is working (do we see a difference in fish diversity, abundance, and/or biomass inside and outside of the MPA?), and whether or not reef habitat fares differently as a result (do reef corals and other benthic organisms fare better inside versus outside of an MPA?).

A monitoring transects on the Belize Barrier Reef, showing small but healthy corals
amidst healthy reef fishes during a previous expedition.

These are big questions that are trying to be answered globally in MPAs around the world, so we are in good company. Unfortunately, like everything in life it seems, the answers are rarely straightforward. Is the MPA properly enforced? Are there other simultaneous issues (invasive species, disease, etc) that are interfering with MPA / non-MPA signals? Remembering that correlation does not imply causation, scientists must gather large amounts of data that show consistent patterns across time and space in order to adequately assess the impact of MPA boundaries.

After 3.5 years, we have a well-established baseline of reef conditions. We also have honed our protocols. On this trip (as with every trip), we’ll analyze our data and try to assess whether we see differences in diversity, abundance, and biomass of reef organisms inside and outside of the MPA boundaries, and then we’ll try to determine whether those differences can actually be attributed to the MPA, or not.

Along the way, we’ll hopefully make some new discoveries, find some familiar friends (like my favorite Dendrogyra coral colony….), and most importantly: share our journey with you.

More soon! The reef beckons…


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