Diving in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef

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I would like to start with a big thank you to all those that have helped and been involved with the project so far.

  • The staff from the Belize Fisheries Department based at South Water Caye Marine Reserve and Bachalar Chico Marine reserve for their assistance and hospitality
  • David Placencia and his team of volunteers at Centro Ecologico Akumal (CEA) for their work in Mexico
  • Dr Analise Hagen, Reylando Castro and the rest of the team at the Southern Environmental Association (SEA) for their help with Logistics and personnel as well as the Fisheries Staff at Sapodilla Cayes
  • Gary, Jen, Nikkita and the other staff at Blue Ventures in Belize as well as Richard Nimmo at Blue Ventures head office in the UK for all their help with logistics, work and personnel
  • Liz Hudd and her six students for their field assistance

  I am now well over half way through having completed 7 sites (Akumal, Bachalar Chico, Sapodilla Cayes, Glover’s Reef Atoll, Emily, Carrie Bow Caye and Caye Caulker), but am now running behind schedule. The people I have been working with in Belize assure me there nothing I can do about this as I am in Belize and so am working in ‘Belize time’, something that anyone who as been there will know has the effect of slowing down time. However this is certainly made up for by the enthusiasm and effort of those that have helped with the project. Already I have found a huge variation in health, diversity and species abundance in the sites surveyed so far on a purely qualitative bases. Some are from clear impacts such as development, pollution and storm damage, but will have to wait until the data crunching begins to see the real similarities/dissimilarities between the sites and habitats and their causes. The work: Most of the sites we have been able to complete with 4 dives in 2 days. The most challenging is the Fore reef dive due to time and depth constraints, and adverse weather making it hard to pass through channels to get outside the barrier reef. Whilst my core team and most of those from organizations that helped with the research were fully trained on identification and working along transects many were not familiar with the use of video, photography and using quadrats. This meant that in addition to thorough briefing sessions, in some sites we included training dives increasing the experience and knowledge of survey techniques and dive planning of those that were involved. Environmental variables are also measured at each site – Temperature, salinity, dissolved O2, pH and chlorophyll. Travelling to location with all the equipment has probably been the most exhausting part of the work involving a lot of local bus travel and leg work although spending up to 5 hours underwater in a single day can come a close second. Accommodation was provided at Akumal, Bachalar Chico and Sapodilla Cayes by the organizations which helped with the research giving a great camp feel. With other sites – Carrie Bow Caye, Emily and Glover’s Reef Atoll – we were able to travel from our main base on Tobacco Caye where boats, captains and tanks were provided by Reefs End Lodge Dive Centre. The small island bar was a nice way to relax after the completion of the site and talk to people about the work we were doing. A real reward from this work is that despite having worked on and off for the past 3 years on the Belize Barrier Reef I am still finding fish and organisms that I have never seen before. The cost of this reward is that I now have a growing mountain of data, images and video which will need to be analysed when I return to the UK.
Activities on the side:
Throughout this project many of the groups we have worked with are heavily involved in monitoring and conservation and as such we have been fortunate enough to assist in these efforts. One of the issues on fisheries in Belize is the exponential growth of invasive lionfish populations. In 2009 only a couple Lionfish were occasionally spotted at a few dive sites off Tobacco Caye in the South Water Caye Marine Reserve where I was working. There were only 34 confirmed sightings by July 2009 throughout the whole country. Now I spot them on nearly every dive on the fore reef and patch reefs we visit, some seagrass beds and in most of the mangrove lagoons. There is now a nation wide Lionfish Project which includes educating stakeholders on the species and the problems they cause, how to catch and harvest them and monthly tournaments. Some teams have caught in excess of 150 individuals on a single dive in some areas. Apart from doing what we could locally to help with education and awareness, in the Sapodilla Cayes we had enough tanks spare after conducting the research to organize a dive with the local Fisheries Officers to hunt Lionfish. We were able to work again with SEA but this time to assist them with their spawning aggregation monitoring. We spent 5 days with them monitoring the Snapper spawning aggregations at Gladden Spit on Belize’s Barrier Reef conducting 2 dives a day counting and observing the spawning aggregations. Despite licenses being given to a number of traditional fishermen indications are that there is a healthy population in the area. At the same time other researchers were working with the fisherman, weighing the catch, sexing the fish and observing egg and gonad maturity. It is arguable that Gladden Spit is one of the most important and viable spawning areas in the Caribbean. As a treat we were lucky enough to spend a few minutes with a Whale Shark which coincide with the spawning. Still to come:
There are just a few sites left, a lot of goodbyes and a long trip home. Hopefully we can squeeze in a few ‘fun’ dives before then…   Matthew Jasinski   Read Matthew's first blog about his expedition to the Mesoamerican barrier reef.

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