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Last best place on earth: Who will save the Caribbean’s great coral reef?

  • Lighthouse Reef 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 awaken to its likely loss, and rally vigorously to the cause of permanently protecting it — now, before it is gone.
Giant brain coral and elkhorn coral on the Lighthouse Reef. Photo by Justin Catanoso
Giant brain coral and elkhorn coral on Lighthouse Reef. Photo by Justin Catanoso

Les Kaufman set me straight on the paradox that is Lighthouse Reef Atoll, a cluster of five islands some 50 miles off the coast of Belize in the emerald blue waters of the Caribbean.

“Lighthouse Reef is the greatest missed opportunity in the tropical Atlantic for meaningful conservation of a marine site,” Kaufman told me. The Boston University marine biologist has been studying the remote Belizean coral reef since 1996. “It’s a place of drug runners, desperate fishermen and shark finners. It’s like the Wild West out there.”

It’s also a wonder.

For the second consecutive year, I was spending time at the atoll, snorkeling in deep and shallow waters. Its islands — a part of the Mesoamerican reef system, the world’s second largest — span 26 miles north to south. And at the atoll’s heart is the Blue Hole, a spectacular deep-blue, coral-ringed cavern and shark tank made famous by the French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.

“Lighthouse Reef is a global asset for understanding the interplay between climate action and local human impacts,” Kaufman explained. “It’s a sort of regional climate observatory. You are far enough offshore where human impacts are sufficiently reduced, and you have a good chance of the coral community recovering [from periodic climate change-caused bleaching episodes] and becoming quite lush.”

Miles Silman examines a stressed portion of Lighthouse Reef. Photo by Justin Catanoso
Miles Silman examines a stressed portion of Lighthouse Reef. Photo by Justin Catanoso

With each snorkel, I gained a deeper understanding of Kaufman’s insights, and saw with my own eyes that this vitally important reef is in jeopardy.

Some of the impacts can be more easily controlled than others, like overfishing, shark finning and the harm done by poor fishery regulation and enforcement and governmental indifference. Some cannot, like the intense bleaching event that was underway when I was there — the result of the strongest El Niño on record and of global warming — the third major global bleaching event since the 1998. Bleaching is inexorably killing the world’s reefs, and it is feared that many may not survive the century, or even half-century mark.

Reef magic

Coral reefs are often called the tropical forests of the sea. They provide shelter, nourishment and protection to 25 percent of all aquatic life. They provide a calmer habitat than open ocean, and so serve as vital nursery areas. And they are a food source for a wide range of sea species.

Yet the accumulating damage leaves much underwater life struggling to survive. The domino effect up the food chain from feeder fish, to the fish that feed the world, is heading toward disaster.

The Great Blue Hole, a World Heritage site recently opened to licensed and unlimited shark fishing by the Bilizean government. shark fishing. Photo courtesy of USGS
The Great Blue Hole, a World Heritage Site recently opened to licensed and unlimited shark fishing by the Belizean government. Photo courtesy of USGS

“The fishing pressure here is intense,” Ann Marie McNeil told me. She is a Jamaican ex-pat who has been the dive master at Lighthouse Reef for a decade. “Spawning aggregation sites have been wiped out.”

The explanation, my sources told me, is simple: Overfishing closer to the mainland sends more fishermen farther and farther to sea, out to Lighthouse Reef. With no one watching, they take the most marketable fish first, even if they are too small. McNeill cringes when she tells me that fishermen are starting to take stoplight parrotfish — algae eaters that are crucial to the health of coral reefs. As more familiar edible fish like grouper and snapper become less plentiful, she says, other medium-sized fish become targets.

Still, despite the damage and loss, on some snorkels I encountered incomparable beauty.

Shimmering gold-colored brain coral, each the size of a sofa. Multi-branching soft sponges, waving surrealistically in the sea current like liquid candelabra. Squid that changed color fantastically as I swam after them. And a swirling rainbow array of small fish — bluehead wrasse, French grunts, four-eyed butterflyfish — that stuck close to the reef for shelter and feeding.

Lettuce coral. Its rapid growth after bleaching episodes has made the reef more resistant to damage. Photo by Justin Catanoso
Lettuce coral. Its rapid growth after bleaching episodes has made the reef more resistant to damage. Photo by Justin Catanoso

Look, I thought as I glided underwater, there’s a timid squirrelfish darting about, orangey and maybe seeing me with its oversized eyes. That queen triggerfish with its green and blue piping should be called a drag queen fish! Schools of blue tangs flow together tightly as they swarm, like their own mini jetstream. And if you listen closely, you can hear the stoplight parrotfish, with their white spots, and black and reddish underbelly, chomping on the reef as they feed.

“Coral reefs are probably the greatest pageant of animal life in the world,” Carl Safina, the legendary ocean conservationist and bestselling author, told me. “There is nowhere else where you can watch animals at that density of such riotous diversity that are completely blended into a scene of amusing and colorful design.”

Coloring outside the lines

This March, however, I was more struck by what I didn’t see at Lighthouse Reef.

Sharks, for example.

I saw plenty just a year ago in March 2015, gliding below me, outlined against the deep cobalt of the Blue Hole, and on other reefs too.

This year? I encountered a nurse shark or two. I saw two reef sharks at a murky distance. But none during the hour I spent in the Blue Hole. None in the waters off Long Caye on the southern end of the atoll. None around Northern Caye. Later, I learned that some 500 sharks had been illegally netted and finned by license-bearing foreign fishermen just a few weeks prior.

Snorkeling amid the rubble of Lighthouse Reef. Photo by Justin Catanoso
Snorkeling amid the rubble of Lighthouse Reef. Photo by Justin Catanoso

The coral was in trouble too. The thriving staghorn and elkhorn coral, the majestic branching corals that are crucial to healthy reef systems had disappeared in a single year. I did see a lot of dead branches littering the sand. I did see rotting mountainous sea coral. And I saw a ghostly patch of bleached coral in the shallow western waters of Half Moon Caye, a Marine Protected Area. Many corals were so covered with fleshy algae and with so few fish that my heart sank.

We’ve come to expect this kind of degradation on huge swaths of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and throughout the Pacific, where ocean warming, El Niño and bleaching are proving a deadly combination. But not in these cooler Belizean waters in the Western Hemisphere. Not yet anyway. But 2016 looks to be a game changer.

At the end of each day, as snorkelers and divers unwound at the eco-lodge on Long Caye, I would share a rum and Coke with my Wake Forest University colleague Miles Silman, a tropical ecologist who has taken his biology students to Lighthouse Reef Atoll the past six years as part of a coral conservation class.

“It’s clear things are moving in the wrong direction,” Silman told me. “I thought this was a place that would at least hold even. It’s so far away [from the coast]. There are only 70 families that regularly fish this area. There is a big Marine Protected Area [Half Moon Caye].

“But now you find the families are coloring outside the lines. Guatemalans are actually coming in with government-issued licenses. They aren’t taking a few fish. They are taking hundreds of sharks with illegal gill nets and long lines. They are taking anything and everything they can sell. And no one is watching.”

The captured sharks’ fins are likely destined for Asia, and especially China, where a bowl of shark fin soup can easily cost $100 — a status dish served by rich families at weddings and other celebrations.

Large schools of fish on the reef are in decline due to overfishing. Photo by Justin Catanoso
Large schools of fish on the reef are in decline due to overfishing. Photo by Justin Catanoso

When Silman first snorkeled and dove on Lighthouse Reef in 2011, the sea grass was filled with live conch. Hundreds of conch every few feet, he told me. Just five years later, we were lucky, to see one or two live conch. They’re being fished out of existence for ceviche, conch fritters, and other delicious appetizers. Grouper are essentially gone, their spawning aggregation sites completely depleted by overfishing. Humankind, it seems, is eating its way quickly through Belize’s biodiversity.

Silman grew more melancholy as the sun set: “This is a really important reef that is hanging in there, and we’re doing our best to kill it. The gill netters taking sharks. More Belizeans pulling more fish.

“And you have a reluctance, maybe even a refusal of Belizean fisheries [officials] to put in the necessary regulations to maintain this incredibly valuable asset — not only for its own tourism industry, but for the world. It doesn’t make any sense,” he mourned.

Politics of indifference

Les Kaufman remembers Lighthouse Reef in 1996: “It was so spectacular; so alive with coral cover.”

But a massive bleaching event in 1998 wiped out a lot of Belizean coral, as did decades of warming ocean temperatures. “Imagine a magnifying glass in the sky incinerating one spot after another,” Kaufman said.

A disease called “white band” swept through the Caribbean basin and nearly wiped out all the elkhorn and staghorn coral a few years later. Lighthouse Reef weathered that shock with a fast-growing species called lettuce coral, which helped keep much of the reef intact and alive.

Surprisingly, Kaufman said, the elkhorn and staghorn began growing back in the early 2000s.

Sea whip soft coral. Photo by Justin Catanoso
Sea whip soft coral. Photo by Justin Catanoso

“We are in the midst of another bleaching right now, but somehow, Lighthouse Reef is still one of the bright spots in the Caribbean,” he said. “While the whole system doesn’t look that good, there are a lot of areas where you can find places that are doing better.”

I asked Kaufman if it was just my imagination that I could sense Lighthouse Reef moving in the wrong direction after just a single year. He responded:

“What’s not moving in the right direction is the politics. Go to a place on the atoll where you expect to see coral regenerating and it is — very aggressively and impressively. The crescent wall [on the west side] of Half Moon Caye [which is protected] is in better shape than anywhere else I know in Belize.”

When I snorkeled that crescent wall, I was stunned at the size and robust health of the pillar coral and mountainous star coral. There were schools of parrotfish three times larger than any I’d seen elsewhere. Fish were in abundance, especially barracuda. It all seemed to illustrate the obvious. A protected reef like Half Moon Caye, even in warmer water, can be a healthy reef.

But to my amazement, and the amazement of everyone, from biologists to dive operators to tourists, much of Lighthouse Reef Atoll has not been set aside as a Marine Protected Area. Meanwhile the protection that is in place at Half Moon Caye and the Blue Hole is scant — a few uniformed park rangers in small boats with outboard engines patrol, but only during daylight hours.

Article author Justin Catanoso has been diving on the reef for just two years, but has seen a noticable decline over that time
Article author Justin Catanoso is a newcomer to the reef, arriving there first in 2015, but over that short time he has already sensed a decline in reef health.

“We know protected areas work,” Miles Silman told me one evening. “You protect things and they come back. Here you have one of the last best places in the western Atlantic to preserve. You give it a fighting chance against climate change and it will respond.”

He emphasized the ongoing die-off of coral reefs around the world: “You need a place that is aspirational. You need a place that can demonstrate what can be. This is it. Or was it. And if you let this go to hell, you figure, well it’s all going to hell.”

On the phone several days later, Les Kaufman stressed the same point: “All of Lighthouse Reef Atoll should be a no-take area,” he said. “The problem though is that to just put the whole thing off limits is really unfair to the Belizeans who have spent their whole lives living in the area and using it. It would be more desirable to set it up as an experiment, [to learn] whether we can maintain a coral reef in the 21st century without exiling everyone from it.”

Such a preserve would look something like this: Limited fishing. No large-scale commercial fishing. Total protection of all sharks. No collecting species except for scientific research. And plenty of eco-tourism to support the local populace economically, and to generate the dollars needed to beef up patrols and install 24/7 high-tech monitoring to maintain the newly created reef regulations.

“This is an argument based on a global need,” Kaufman declared, “not just for Belize.”

Carl Safina, a MacArthur genius fellow, turned philosophical when I asked him about the true value of a place like Lighthouse Reef Atoll:

“The question is a moral and ethical one. We scrounge and gouge every place in the world just to wrest another few dollars and a few meals for a few days. These places were on their own for hundreds of millions of years, and only in the last 50 years has the notion of protection come up. These reefs don’t need to be protected as much as they just need to be left alone.”

Gill netted and finned

Twice in mid-February, Jim Cullinan, manager of Itza Lodge on Long Caye, heard there was trouble on Hat Caye, a small island he owns a short distance away that is used by local fishermen to prep their catch. The dead bonefish he saw floating as he approached told him all he needed to know: illegal gill netting.

“It’s real obvious,” Cullinan said. “No hook marks.”

The sea grass in the shallow water around Hat Caye had been set with nets by commercial Guatemalan fishermen. They trapped tarpon, snapper, tuna and shark — more than 500 big fish in all. Cullinan estimated that the shark catch there topped 250. At least that many sharks were trapped and finned the same week near Northern Caye some 26 miles away.

A stretch of beach at Lighthouse Reef. Photo by dronepicr licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
A stretch of beach at Lighthouse Reef. Photo by dronepicr licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

“They had buckets full of shark fins and freezers full of shark meat,” said Cullinan, assuming most of the catch was headed for Asian markets. “They had hammerhead, reef, bull, nurse. Pretty much all kinds of sharks. I ran them off. Told them to stay away. I called the Coast Guard. They came out, but they said they couldn’t do anything. I called [the department of] fisheries a week later. They weren’t helpful either.”

Beverly Wade, the fisheries administrator for Belize, was interviewed by local journalists once word spread online about the shark slaughter. She sounded unconcerned.

“Where shark fishing is being done, that population seems stable,” Wade told reporters on the mainland. “There is no argument that there is a need for us to look at probably more regulations for our shark fishery. But regulations have to also be based on sound information.”

Wade made clear she was not close to proposing new fishing regulations. The Guatemalans using illegal gill nets on Lighthouse Reef? They had government licenses to kill.

Rachel Graham, a conservation biologist who grew up in Tunisia, has lived in Belize for 18 years. Because of her research and conservation work with sharks, especially the mellow whale shark, she has been dubbed “the aquatic Jane Goodall.”

Struggling lettuce and brain coral. Photo by Justin Catanoso
Struggling lettuce and brain coral. Photo by Justin Catanoso

As founder and executive director of the NGO MarAlliance, Graham and her staff focus on the conservation of marine species, especially sharks and rays. She works closely with Belizean fisheries. It was she who blew the whistle on the February shark kill on social media, pressuring Wade to defend the lack of shark fishing regulations.

“We lost so many sharks [in February],” Graham told me in a Skype interview. “Many were juvenile. Several were pregnant. There were tagged sharks. We lost those. We didn’t get any science out of them. The fisheries administrator said the shark population is stable based on our data, but they misinterpreted our data.”

It all begs the question yet again: why isn’t the entirety of Lighthouse Reef Atoll a Marine Protected Area? Half Moon Caye and the Blue Hole, both world heritage sites, generate nearly US $4 million in visitor and dive fees annually, a significant sum for a country with a 41 percent poverty rate.

And the sharks are what snorkelers and divers are paying to see. These animals are clearly worth far more alive and swimming at Lighthouse Reef than supplying meat markets in Guatemala and shark fin soup markets across Asia.

“For six years we’ve been pushing for long line and gill net fish bans on Lighthouse Reef,” Graham told me. “We have given justification. And when we go back to the ministry, we are asked for more proof. We give it to them. They finally asked for input from fishermen. So Belize Audubon Society surveyed dozens of them. They all agreed [on the need for the ban]. We delivered the petition. And they [the fisheries administrators] said no. We pressed them for a reason. They never gave us one.”

Graham is as outraged as she is adamant: “If you are going to protect any atoll, it’s Lighthouse Reef. It brings in the most tourism revenue for the country. It has the best coral, the most megafauna and two world heritage sites. I don’t know what they are waiting for.”

Sunset over a Caye. If the reefs aren't saved neither will be the tourist-dependent economy of Belize. Photo by Samantha Beddoes licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
Sunset over a Belizean Caye. If the country’s reefs aren’t saved neither will be the tourist-dependent economy of Belize. Photo by Samantha Beddoes licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

When one tries to understand why nothing is happening, it’s easy to think corruption may be playing a role in the government’s foot dragging and failure to properly enforce protections on already conserved portions of the reef.

As sharks and other sea life get rarer, and bring higher prices on the market, their capture and sale becomes attractive to criminal elements all around the Caribbean. Swim bladders in Mexico, for example, of the Endangered totoaba fish are worth more than cocaine, selling for up to $125,000 per kilogram in China. Illegal harvesting of sea cucumbers, another Asian delicacy, has likewise exploded along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where criminal networks have reportedly moved into the business.

In 2014, high sea cucumber profits led to violent competition between rival gangs in Yucatán and Campeche. And in 2015 Milenio reported that armed men stole 3.5 tons of dehydrated sea cucumbers in a high-stakes heist.

University biologists Kaufman and Silman say government corruption may not be the only explanation for what happens and does not happen in the waters off the coast of Belize.

“My hunch for Belize,” Kaufman said, “is that the more important irregularities have to do with top leaders constantly weighing short-term gain — often by a very few politically influential individuals who they are beholden to — against the good of the country as a whole.”

Added Silman: “This isn’t only about hardened criminals. Ordinary people facing these kinds of choices will choose wrongly again and again.”

Who will save Lighthouse Reef?

Ann Marie McNeil, the Jamaican ex-pat now living in Belize, is among the locals at Lighthouse Reef whose livelihood depends on the health of the coral reef. She is the manager of Itza Lodge on Long Caye; her two brothers operate a dive business from the island. They know that if the high numbers of large fish disappear from the reef, so too will the tourist dollars.

A section of still healthy reef at the Blue Hole. Photo by Justin Catanoso
A section of still healthy reef at the Blue Hole. Photo by Justin Catanoso

You might think the Belizean government would share in an appreciation of that same fact, especially with tourism being the top moneymaking activity in the country. You’d think that the government would weigh the multimillion-dollar value of living fish above the insignificant licensing fees paid for large-scale commercial fishing — an activity that is quickly emptying the reef of life.

“No, they don’t,” McNeil told me. “Fish are a big part of the diet of Belize. We always had enough. Now, with larger Latin American populations and pressure from Honduras and Guatemala, we have a serious problem. I don’t believe the government gets the fact that they have to make serious efforts to protect the very important tourist dollar. This is an economic necessity right now.”

McNeil explained how distressing it is to her that so many sharks were slaughtered in mid-February at the atoll and how “no one seems to care in higher government.”

Sounding like a biologist or NGO, she pleaded:

“Lighthouse Reef is not just a Belizean concern. It is a Caribbean concern. It is a concern of the Americas and the world. It is one of the very few bright spots left — with coral and fish populations. But it will all go away in a couple of years if we do not get this [full] protection.”

McNeil warns against what he perceives as a defeatist and indifferent mindset by many Belizeans, perhaps a carryover from colonial days — even among resort owners, dive operators and tour guides. Paradoxically, there is very little local outrage directed toward government inaction to protect their travel-related industries.

“We are a poor country, a Third World country, and pushing back against authority is not something we are comfortable doing,” McNeil told me. “Our economy is in trouble. NGOs will have to get involved.”

Les Kaufman and Miles Silman, and NGO Rachel Graham know the value of this priceless natural treasure, and agree. It’s why they keep returning to Lighthouse Reef Atoll, or like Graham, take up residence permanently in Belize.

“If we lose Lighthouse, you take away the last best place on the planet,” Silman told me. “You take away the hope and aspirations for what we can do with ocean conservation.”

“We should be seeing big fish everywhere in Lighthouse,” Graham said. “We should see a big fish behind every rock.”

“I haven’t given up,” Kaufman said flatly. There was a long pause as I awaited elaboration. But all he added was: “I haven’t given up. That’s what I have to tell you. I haven’t given up.”


Justin Catanoso is director of journalism at Wake Forest. His climate change reporting is supported by the Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability at Wake Forest and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent Mongabay contributor.

Scenes on Lighthouse Reef. Photo by Justin Catanoso
Scenes on Lighthouse Reef. Without international action this global biodiversity hot spot could be gone in just a few years. Photo by Justin Catanoso
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