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Endangered Western Caribbean Atlantic Reefs

Updated on August 9, 2010


This regional issue concerns the coral reef of the country of Belize (the longest stretch of coral reef in Central America). It is the largest continuous living organism in Central America and is greatly affected by Humans both directly and indirectly. The human effect on this organism has been present since pre-Colombian times, and is more so in danger due to exponential human growth in the region, and the exploding human industrialization in the area immediately surrounding the reef.

How have humans complicated and compromised the coral reef off the coast of Belize, both directly and indirectly? Are some of the issues currently affecting the reef purely human, environmental, or both? Throughout my research, I decided to arrange my sources in the order in which I read them--from least difficult to most. I felt this was the most respective way for me to do my research, in hopes of upgrading my personal knowledge from novice to a hopeful expert on the topic. As such, the sources aim towards these respective audiences--from the layman, to the doctor.

Annotated Resource #1

McKnight, Tom L. and Darrel Hess. Physical Geography : A Landscape Appreciation. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2005.

McKnight covers the basics of what a coral reef actually is, and what it is composed of. "Coral polyps are tiny marine animals that secrete external skeletons of calcium carbonate...". This very substance is what coral is to our eyes, and that which other animals utilize as shelter, hunting areas, and an ecological niche for which they can evolve to do their respective lifestyles more effectively. McKnight also reveals the geographical actions that went in to producing the atolls and motus I am studying.

Annotated Resource #2

Habitat Protection | Coral Reef Protection. US EPA, Ocean and Coastal Protection Division. 8 Oct. 1999.  <>

This US EPA article stresses the sensitivity and inherent ecological importance of coral coasts & coral reefs. The agency refers to them as "the rainforests of the ocean", which seems quite accurate, if not understating. The symbiotic relationship of coral with other animals & aquatic life that interacts with the polyps is revealed, although this relationship is not always present (I.E. Starfish). The list of animals, algae and other plant life which reside with the coral (either seasonally or permanantly) is discussed, but is relatively vague. The polyps adaptation to natural disasters becomes evident throughout the article, with a growth rate of 0.3-10cm a year, coral reefs can exponentially grow under the right conditions (although I feel they oversimplify this, not taking in to account other demanding factors). The "Solutions" section of the article seems bureaucratic and unconvincing, showing that the US EPA does not have many answers for coral reefs that may be suffering, only theoretical and/or controversial ones.

Annotated Resource #3

Gibson, Janet and Melanie McField. Priorities For Caribbean Coral Reef Research. Living Oceans Foundation, Coral Research Priorities Workshop, October 3– 5, 2001 <>

At this point, the articles are becoming far more specific to what I am researching, and the location I am pertaining to (coral reef structure and health on the atlantic side of Central America, through the lens of human interference). Gibson makes it quite clear for what the article will, and does compose of: "...scientists and managers came to a general consensus that the three major stressors on Caribbean reefs were siltation, overfishing, and nutrient enrichment." She stresses that these issues & activities correlate heavily with that which occurs on land, and eventually runs out to sea. It seems that not enough research is conducted on the reefs of the western Caribbean, or at least hands-on, constant research. She stresses the idea that the lifeforms present in the reefs are interconnected and depend heavily on one another; like old christmas light bulbs--if you break one bulb, none of the lights turn on.

Annotated Resource #4

Williams, Ivor D., Nicholas V.C. Polunin, Vicki J. Hendrick. "Limits to Grazing by Herbivorous Fishes And The Impact of Low Coral Cover on Macroalgal Abundance on a Coral Reef in Belize", Marine Ecology Progress Series. 222 (2001) : 187-196

This article presents itself on a foundation of convincing data via a scientific manuscript posture. The research conducted was at Ambergris Caye, Belize; Coral only covered 10% of the below-surface, and no fishing was found to be present over the 8 month project. Williams conceeds that indeed nutrient enrichment, overfishing, and human interaction was at work, it was not limited to these factors. The research project strove to find other complex factors that were threatening the Belizean reefs. The team found that placing tiles simulated polyps growth. Grazing, herbivorous, invasive fish were found to be a primary problem--the macroalgae present beckoned more invasive fish to arrive, breed and continue the cycle. The tile placement showed a substantial decline in macroalgae growth, and thus limited grazing, harmful fish species.

Annotated Resource #5

Aronson, Richard B., Ian G. Macintyre, William F. Precht, Thaddeus J. T. Murdoch, Cheryl M. Wapnick. "The Expanding Scale of Species Turnover Events On Coral Reefs in Belize." Ecological Monographs, 72(2) (2002) : 233-249.

Aronson stresses the importance and prevalence of white-band disease & the concept of coral bleaching in this scientific manuscript. The study location was once again in Belize, within the shelf lagoon (rhomboid shoals). The article is unique in that it uses a "now and then" format along with it's statistical, and sometimes dizzying scientific manuscript format & statistics. Aronson et al are constantly relating to what the reefs were like in the 1980's, showing a grave difference. Wonderful pictures and statistics roam the article, certainly helping the reader ascertain the information. Aronson et al shows that wind-band disease and rising sea levels are bringing long term havoc to the area, the concept of interdependence among species is proving strikingly true.


Throughout my research, I feel I've risen from a mere novice, to at least a humble learner who respects the ultra-sensitive dynamics of the western caribbean reef. Not only are the coral that surround the Belizean coast in existential danger, the researchers who do their work seem to be at odds with one another. There list of problems present is long and tireless, seemingly feeding off of each other, spawning a synergetic amount of consuming coral issues. Most of the articles tended to shy away from whether humans were the cause of the problem(s), focusing moreso on the dynamics of that which was at hand. Is the issues present human or purely environmental via other causes? It seems to be both. For example,the rising sea levels (for which human interaction with the planet has a heavy correlation with [I.E. global warming]) seem to inspire reef drowning and replacement of polyps by deeper dwelling species--a fine example of how difficult it is to blame one party or another (human, or purely environmental). The researchers seem to silently stress the point that blame isn't a constructive nor practical way to solve the issues at hand--continuing investigation and sharing of important research, is.


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