With increasingly severe storms and coral bleaching due to climate change, the world’s coral reefs are threatened like never before. When Hurricane Iris struck southern Belize in 2001, the country's corals were decimated. Yet within a decade, a radical restoration project brought the reef back to life.
When Lisa Carne first visited Laughing Bird Caye National Park in 1994, the reef was vibrant and bursting with life, abundant with fish, corals, lobsters, crabs, sponges and sea turtles. After the hurricane, it was a scene of desolation, the seabed a swathe of rubble dotted with a few surviving corals. Hurricane Iris not only killed corals but uprooted their structure, making recovery more difficult.
For five years after Iris, the reef lay bare. Carne, having moved from California as a research assistant at the Smithsonian’s field station at Carrie Bow Cay, wanted to do something about it. Her idea was to plant corals, but years were spent trying to convince potential funders. In 2006, the US-listed Caribbean acroporid corals (the Caribbean’s fasted growing and primary reef-building coral) as endangered. A local funder approved Carne's proposal to restore the reef.
Carne began by transplanting 19 elkhorn coral fragments from the main barrier reef 31km away. "People were asking me why I'm going so far away for the corals," said Carne. "They thought that these corals were common, like sand. But after two weeks of mapping, I found that they were not everywhere anymore." She discovered coral cover encompassed less than 6% of the national park area, compared to 15 to 28% before the storm.
Despite a series of subsequent bleaching events, Carne noticed pockets of the reef appeared relatively healthy. As the initial 2006 transplant survival was high, she identified surviving corals and started reseeding the reefs with them in 2010.
Whereas Carne's team previously trimmed corals into 10cm pieces, grew them in a nursery until they reached around 30cm and planted them in the reef, this breakthrough allowed accelerated growth rates for certain coral species and bypassed nursery time for others completely.
Fishermen and tour guides from nearby Placencia village were the first to notice the success of transplanting efforts and offered to help with the planting.
In 2013, Carne registered a non-profit community-based organization in Belize called Fragments of Hope and opened a US branch two years later. Endorsed by the Belize Fisheries Department, the organization developed a coral restoration training course, which has certified over 70 Belizeans to date.
As the only organization practising reef restoration in Belize, the group cooperates closely with the government and is now working on a joint national restoration plan for coral replenishment.
After 15 years of effort, the coral reefs at Laughing Bird Caye National Park are once again teeming with life. To date, over 85,000 corals have been planted and fish life is once again abundant. Long-term monitoring revealed 89% survived after 14 years, much higher than usual after restoration.
Yet despite government restrictions, unchecked coastal development has decimated some of the country’s mangrove cayes.
"It's hard to get up every morning and do what you do when there are bigger decisions being made that you may not control," said Carne.
Techniques created by Fragments of Hope have been successfully implemented in Colombia, Jamaica and the Caribbean island of St Barts. "When we first started maybe one or two people were doing reef restoration," said Carne. "But nowadays, everybody's doing it. I joke that it's like yoga now," she added.