Coral reefs are one of the world’s most valuable ecosystems, supporting thousands of species in a brilliant, colorful home. Just off our pristine coastline, Belize’s Barrier Reef is the largest such reef in the Western Hemisphere, and the healthiest living reef in the world. As we at Itz’ana look at the year ahead, the urgent need to preserve our vibrant undersea habitats becomes clear.
Why do the reefs matter so much? They’re are the rainforests of the sea: tropical oases bursting with life, with each species supporting one another through intricate symbiotic relationships. The coral itself is alive—a relative of jellyfish and sea anemones—and provides shelter to the most diverse ocean ecosystem on earth. Covering just 0.1 percent of the ocean surface, they support at least 25 percent of all marine life.
Sadly, reefs around the world are struggling to survive, as overdevelopment and pollution poisons the corals, as overfishing depletes its fish, and, most alarming, as rising water temperatures lead to mass coral-bleaching. A devastating study published in the journal Science made headlines across the globe this month, detailing the extent of this damage. Bleaching—a process in which corals shed their symbiotic organisms and lose their color, caused by warmer water—can be temporary. But the main worry is that as bleaching events become more frequent—Australia’s Great Barrier Reef suffered unprecedented back-to-back mass-bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, decimating the natural wonder—reefs have less time to rebuild. It takes a decade for even the fastest corals to recoup from a bleaching event, far too long to survive as the oceans continue to warm.
Belize is acutely aware of how precarious a situation our reef is in, and our country is committed to preserve it. On January 5, the government announced the permanent suspension of all oil activities in its waters. This marks the first time a developing country has taken such a major step to protect its oceans, making Belize “a world leader,” says World Wildlife Fund’s Nadia Bood.
All of us at Itz’ana are equally committed to saving the Belize Barrier Reef, and we’re taking steps to ensure its survival. One key way to protect our reefs is to curb the spread of the invasive lionfish. First appearing in Belize in 2008, the fish’s population has ballooned, posing a grave threat to native species. Itz’ana supports local fishers who use non-destructive methods like spearfishing, to help rid our waters of the spiny predator. The best part? It’s delicious! Itz’ana also fully endorses and complies with visitation limits to the reefs, making sure that our guests have minimal impact on the beautiful corals and fish. We’re also committed to reducing our use of plastic and other toxic materials.
Guests, too, can help. One easy step is changing sunscreen brands. The U.S. government estimates between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen enter coral reef areas worldwide every year. The problem is that nearly all of the creams contain oxybenzone, a toxin that exacerbates coral bleaching, damages coral DNA and results in coral deformities over time. By switching to chemical-free sunscreens (Allure has a great list of options!), individuals can do their small part in minimizing their impact.
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