Belize, a country in Central America, located between Mexico and Guatemala is diverse in its culture. There are 4 languages spoken readly in Belize, English, Spanish, Creole and the fourth language, Garifuna, is the native tongue to the African tribe that was brought over for sugar plantations. The Projects in Belize have a long evolution from 2011 – 2016. The first project was Lionfish.
In 2011 I went to Belize to work as a SCUBA instructor on Glover’s Atoll, Isla Marisol. That first year there were no Lionfish on any of our dives. The following year we began to see them on occasion. The third year I came back, they were ubiquitous. The other Dive Masters had begun to kill them during our dives. Soon the tourists became interested and wanted to try. I developed some educational talks about them and we would bring the fish to the kitchen to have our ladies cook em up for supper. The next year, in 2014 I brought a group of divers that wanted to focus on reef conservation. Phil Dustan and I developed a curriculum that combined reef ecology, lionfish gut content study and a sea urchin experiment. This was a great way to give the divers a purpose to their vacation. I hope to return to Belize with groups in the future, to show them not only the incredible underwater but to introduce them to the rich Belizian culture and the wonderful people I call my family.
Sea Urchins are not charismatic marine fauna, but they are insatiable herbivores, which means they eat algae. In the early 1980’s the Caribbean lost it’s most voracious herbivore, the long spine sea urchin (Diadema antillarum). My colleague Phil Dustan and I had conducted experiments in Jamaica and Belize and found that Urchin foraging significantly reduced the macro algae and turf algae layer that had smothered corals. Our idea was to take some urchins that were living in shallow reefs and bring them down to deeper reefs (60 ft- 90ft) that had been covered in algae. The premise of this study was to promote “Reef Self Restoration”. By this I mean helping the natural Biology recover so that it can be resilient and self-sustaining. We realized that divers might enjoy planting sea urchins on the reef as you would a coral. So we brought a group down and let them conduct the experiment.
We would cage adult urchins on deeper smothered reefs. After 3 days in the cage, the urchins had mowed down the algae uncovering corals we hadn’t been aware of previously. Our dream was to start a small hatchery where we would culture the urchins, and then bring them out to Glover’s Atoll to settle on the reef. If they can clean off enough substrate then both coral and urchin larvae would have a suitable environment to settle on and begin to regrow the reef. This effort is not over yet, just on pause. I am currently working on a Masters degree at the University of Hawaii in Botany focused on Marine algae. With more education I believe this dream still has potential.