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Reef Monitoring

by on Jul 21st, 2010

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The Belize Barrier Reef stretches 220 km along Belize’s shoreline and has earned its place as the second largest unbroken reef system in the world. This worldly acclaim only partially represents the reef’s importance, as its role as a critical host to a myriad of marine life is unparalleled. It is extremely critical to the livelihood of the Belizean populace as it offers great ecological and socio-economic benefits .

In 1996, in recognition of both its scientific and aesthetic importance, the World Heritage Site Committee formally adopted a portion of the reef system called the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System (View info and map) as a World Heritage Site.

Despite the reef’s importance, as in other countries around the world, it faces serious threats, both natural and more often, human caused. Impacts from these threats are some of the variables that the Belize Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute attempts to assess.

The Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute’s Reef Monitoring Unit:

Reef Biologist collecting data during routine assessment (Photo by Dr. Melanie McField)

The Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute (CZMAI) is doing its part to promote the conservation of this important and valuable resource base. Since the adoption of a coral reef monitoring unit in 1999, the CZMAI has been routinely carrying out biological monitoring to determine the health and productiveness of Belize’s coral reefs. Results from these studies are published in its annual State of the Coast Reports.

The Coral Reef Monitoring Unit has in place a national coral reef monitoring programme, which complements the Water Quality and Coastal Planning programmes that function to promote good coastal water quality and prudent coastal developments.

Objective of the Reef Monitoring Programme:

The objective of the Reef Monitoring Programme is to study the effects of natural and anthropogenic (man-made) impacts on the Belize Barrier Reef through routine coral reef monitoring, data recording and the maintenance of a reef-monitoring database.

Coral Reef Monitoring Activities:

I. Monitoring Coral Health on Three of Belize’s Back Reef Sites

Coral Tagging is the primary monitoring technique being utilized to monitor reef health at these targeted sites. It is being utilized to conduct a comparative assessment of degree of impact on reef health owing to fishing, dive/snorkel tourism, and dredging and resort development on three back reef sites within the Northern Barrier Reef Section of the Belize Barrier Reef Complex. The technique entails the tagging (marking) and monitoring of certain individual stony (reef building) corals over time.

Four species of corals are currently being utilized.

  • Montastraea annularis
Boulder Star Coral
  • Montastraea faveolata
Mountainous Star Coral
  • Siderastrea siderea
Massive Starlet Coral
  • Diploria strigosa
Symmetrical Brain Coral

These species of corals were chosen due to their ample availability at the selected sites (View Map).

Tagging Process

At each site, twenty-five individuals of the four-targeted coral species were tagged, yielding 100-tagged colonies per site. Tagging the same coral species at each site lends good comparison of the areas and also for grouping sites to represent one region.

Colonies were tagged (marked) for future monitoring by using a number-coded “cattle tag” attached to a 3-inch masonry nail that has been driven into the substrate near the colony ( The number code is used to identify the targeted coral colonies). Additionally, a piece of flagging tape is tied to the nail to facilitate finding during field monitoring.

A tagged Diploria strigosa colony (CZMAI)

Monitoring Parameters and Frequency

The monitoring team returns to the sites on a quarterly basis to record the condition of the colonies. Colony size is recorded once per year . Parameters monitored on a quarterly basis are:

  • Algal overgrowth
  • Diseases
  • Bleaching
  • Predation
  • Sediment smothering
  • Mortality (old and recent)

Simultaneously, water quality variables such as temperature, salinity and visibility are also monitored.

II. Monitoring the Effects of a Dredging and Reclamation Project on the Coral Reef Community Structure Adjacent to Caye Chapel Island.

Due to Hurricane Keith in 2000, Caye Chapel Island was severely impacted with an estimated 8,500 feet of seawall destroyed and major erosion of its landmass . The surrounding waters were very turbid. Rapid assessment of adjacent reefs revealed significant bleaching among various species of hard corals and considerable deposits of fine sediment along the reef bed (CZMAI’s Reef Monitoring Programme 2000). It was very evident that those reef were under stress. The challenge, following Hurricane Keith, was to determine whether or not a subsequent dredging and reclamation project was resulting in further adverse impact on the nearby reefs.

The project entails the assessment of patch and back reef sites (View Map) adjacent to the island. Permanent transects were installed at each site and video monitoring is utilized to detect changes through time.

III. Assessment of Hurricane Impacts

Reef Biologist conducting assessment subsequent to Hurricane Keith in 2000 (CZMAI)

Belize lies within the principal trajectories of late season hurricanes and, over the years, has been affected by a number of large storms; each having different paths, intensities and impact on the Belize Barrier Reef Complex (BBRC). Noting the significant impacts that could be accrued from these storms, it was realized that there is an urgent need to assess and keep abreast of any and all changing reef conditions subsequent to such storms.

The Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute’s (CZMAI) first large scale survey of affected reefs was conducted subsequent to Hurricane Iris in October of 2001. View Assessment Report

IV. Spawning Aggregation Monitoring

The Belize Barrier Reef Complex (BBRC) provides habitat and feed areas for many fin and shellfish species, and function as an important source of revenue for the Belizean economy. Overfishing, however, has resulted in lowering or depleting fisheries stocks at a number of locations throughout the BBRC.

This activity was most evident during fish spawning aggregation seasons. Spawning aggregation sites, once discovered by fishers, are often heavily exploited. At some locations, the stock has been so depleted that such sites are longer utilized by spawning fish during aggregation seasons. Spawning aggregation sites are extremely important in the life cycle of many reef fish. Reproduction at these sites often represents the total annual reproductive output for the species’ population.

It was realized that there is a grave need to educate the fishing community on the adverse effects of their actions and to implement management and conservation interventions as necessary. The CZMAI realizing the importance of such actions opted to join agencies and organizations nationally as well as regionally in trying to attain these goals. The CZMAI is a member of the National Fish Spawning Aggregation Monitoring Working Group and its Coral Reef Monitoring Unit routinely conducts fish assessments at selected sites during spawning aggregation seasons to determine commercial reef fish spawning activity patterns.

V. Collaboration with the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System Project (MBRS)

The CZMAI’s Coral Reef Monitoring Unit collaborates closely with the MBRS Project in the execution of the Belize chapter of their Synoptic Monitoring Programme. In mid 2003, the Unit began utilizing the MBRS Synoptic Monitoring protocol to conduct coral reef monitoring at selected monitoring sites.

VI. Collaboration With Other Agencies

Personnel of the CZMAI’s Coral Reef Monitoring Unit collaborate closely with other agencies involved in coral reef monitoring such as the National Coral Reef Monitoring Working Group, whose members include the Belize Fisheries Department, Wildlife Conservation Society, Toledo Institute for Development, World Wildlife Fund and other agencies; the Atlantic and the Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment (AGRRA) Project, and the Caribbean Planning for Adaptation to Global Climate Change (CPACC) Coral Reef Monitoring Project. This collaboration allows for the dissemination and receiving of reef monitoring information on a national and regional level.


Belize currently has an active integrated coastal zone management program, which is aimed at conserving its diverse marine resources. The Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute’s (CZMAI) Reef Monitoring Programme was implemented with the intention of assisting in this management effort through the provision of additional ecological information.

Data collected from the coral reef monitoring programme can be used to provide status reports on the region after natural events such as hurricanes or human cause disasters. Collected data could also assist the CZMAI in making well-informed policy recommendations to various governmental departments, cooperatives and agencies on issues such as land use, industrial and domestic pollution, etc.

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