Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve (“Bacalar Chico”) is one of thirteen marine reserves found in Belize, and includes mangrove habitat, seagrass beds, sublittoral forest and the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. This report focuses on the establishment of a long term coral reef monitoring programme in the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve and the analysis of baseline data collected between March 2010 and November 2010 by the marine conservation organisation Blue Ventures.
Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve is divided into four zones: the Preservation Zone (PZ) where all marine activities (e.g. fishing, tourism) is banned, Conservation Zones 1 and 2 (CZ1 & CZ2) where limited marine resource exploitation is allowed and the General Use Zone (GUZ) where artisanal fishing is regulated. Cover of major substrate and benthic groups and coral species was surveyed using Point Intercept Transects (PITs). Coral mortality, bleaching and disease were surveyed for 50 coral colonies within haphazardly selected transects. Fish species assemblages in each zone were monitored using fish belt transects and the ‘Rover Diver’ fish survey, a haphazard sampling technique that covers all habitats including crevices and overhangs.
The majority of sites surveyed had low scleractinian coral cover, high cover of turf and fleshy algae. Average scleractinian coral cover was 10.5%, and ranged between 2.8 and 17.2%. Coral cover was 6.5 ± 1.4% on the back reef, 9.4 ± 1.7% on the fringing reef and 12.5 ± 0.9% on the fore reef. It was highest on CZ1 (13.6 ± 1.2%) and lowest on the GUZ (4.4 ± 1.9%) with CZ2 and PZ having 9.4 ± 1.7% and 10.2 ± 1.2% cover respectively. Species richness and diversity in the coral community was higher on the fringing and fore reef than on the back reef. It was highest on CZ1 and CZ2 and lowest on the GUZ.
Total abundance and abundance of the major fish families and species diversity were higher on the fore reef and fringing reef than the back reef and similarly higher in the conservation/preservation zones than in the general use zone. Haemulids were an exception, having highest abundance on the GUZ. Patterns in total fish biomass and biomass of economically and commercially important fish species showed high levels of variability and no clear trends between different reef habitats and conservation zones.
In general the observations made here indicate that the reefs of Bacalar Chico are similar to other degraded Caribbean reefs in their benthic, coral and fish composition, dominated by fleshy and turf algae and with low fish biomass and diversity. Despite the higher coral cover and coral and fish diversity in fisheries closures, the full benefit of management in attaining high biomass of key fish functional groups and diversity is not achieved yet and it is recommended that management efforts should be intensified within this area. It is also recommended that the collection of reef health data is continued in the area to assess the effectiveness of marine reserve management and monitor the health of the coral reef ecosystem.