Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The British Honduras Barrier Reef in the 1960´s, by Ray Auxillou

BY RAY AUXILLOU, August, 2011

Back in the 1960´s , I was in the prime of my life, in my middle to the late 20´s. There was little or no information in the world, on the seas and fisheries of the Western Caribbean Sea. I published a few things and the next thing I knew I was getting letters from all kinds of international organizations from different countries. It seemed nothing was known then, of coral reefs, marine biology, or very little, for vast swaths of the tropical seas of the world, as far as marine biology went. With the assistance of AID, Agency for International Development, from the USA, the Ministry of Natural Resources in the UK, tropical research department, and the department in the USA called nowadays NOAA ( the Pascagoula, Mississippi base for their research ships, in a long period of a decade or more, by slow mail ( there was no internet back then ) I turned myself into a curious self educated marine biologist. The above agencies sent me all kinds of books and pamphlets on every subject under the sun, to do with the things I was researching.
Eventually I published not only magazine articles, but also some mimeographed books, I made on the island of Caye Caulker. There was not much in the way of affordable, or modern printing equipment in the British Colony at that time. Caye Caulker was a barrier reef island, with 90 fishing families at that time. Today it is a thriving 3000 population, TOP WORLD CLASS tourist destination. British Honduras back then was often quoted as being one of the remote four corners of the world. Available only by aircraft for a few UK Colonial Department visitors. Later I was invited to participate in two Caribbean Sea voyages on the USA Fisheries Research ships, Oregon 1, and Oregon 2 in the late 1960´s. Oregon 1 came specifically to check out the research in the Western Caribbean Sea, particularly British Honduras. The Oregon 2 Research trip, took me to Puerto Rico and that area, in regard to deep water fishing, of red snapper stocks, which at that time was my specialty of study in British Honduras. I became a courted and acknowledged international expert on the Western Caribbean Sea. It was heady stuff for a young man at the time.
I had developed the British Honduras Fisheries Research Station on Caye Caulker, which was mostly a one man deal. The idea to develop the fishing industry, from what it was then. In particular, I was curious as how to turn the research into making money as a fisherman. The UN FAO eventually got interested and invited me to work for them, but the hiring process took so long and interfered with my private sector earnings, I finally gave up on them. Bureaucratic processes can be very slow.
By the late 1960´s I had acquired a hotel, several boats ( designed and built them all myself ) and was then running an annual Marine Biology Expedition along with Dr. Henry Hildebrand, of the Marine Biology Department of the University of Corpus Christi. It was a three week affair, and I handled on charter, the logistics, scuba equipment and provided the boats. This went on for another 13 years, until the University of Corpus Christi was sold to the STATE and dropped their marine biology department. By the 80´s I was ready to get out of the marine life and try something else.
We scuba dived, both as marine biologists and as beginning tourism scuba diving expeditions in what was then a deserted bunch of atolls and barrier reef islands. Most habitations had been wiped out by Hurricane Hattie in 1961. There were few people out there back then. My favorite people were lighthouse keepers in different locations. What concerns us today, is the modern current era of reef research. I can tell you that the dead reef of today, is the same today as it was in the 1960s and the 1970´s. Live reef was sporadic. The most vibrant was at the surf line, were the waves break. Even so, the coral for the most part, except in patches seemed dead. Vast lengths of barrier reef were dead, with just the occasional live brain coral.
There are myriad inner sea reefs, EAST of the Placentia peninsular. Except at the very top, they were mostly composed of dead staghorn coral. The sea was about a 100 feet deep. I surmised back then, that the dead coral was due to effects of Hurricane Hattie in 1961. Since then there have been many hurricanes. Hurricanes do not have to strike the mainland of Belize to damage the coral reefs. Any very large hurricane between Jamaica, Cuba and Honduras will effect the atolls and reefs of Belize. I figured back then, that the tidal surge and storm waves were causing the dead coral. We are in Belize at the end of the bowling alley for hurricanes coming through the Caribbean Sea. We get hit most years, by high waves, if not high winds and the eye of such a storm.

Since then new researchers have put forth new theories. Undoubtedly population explosion over the islands and reefs are contaminating the sea and reefs with detergents, fertilizers and other pollution as causing damage to the reefs. Undoubtedly this is so. One of my duties for Dr. Henry Hildebrand was to keep a year round count of the Pelicans I saw on my boat travels. I reported faithfully by letter and gave him the numbers. The Pelican is top of the food chain and a barometer for the health of the reefs. I can tell you that Caye Caulker has NO PELICANS any more and there was a standard population up until the 1990´s of about 4 dozen resident pelicans. So there is a problem for sure. It is however, a new generation that have to figure out these things. All I can tell you on the dead reef observations, is that most of the Barrier reefs were composed of dead coral to depths of over a hundred feet, except right at the surface, where the breaking surf occurs. To claim that modern events are killing the reefs is just not historically true. Between Hurricanes and probably sea water temperature changes, I believe we have cyclical phenomena that damages the environmental envelope for reef populations of coral. Recently new marine biologists have postulated about the interaction of many different denizens of the coral reefs as being decimated by overfishing. That too is probably true and has an effect on the life of the reefs. The environmental envelopment for coral reefs produces over 300 species that are necessary to the health of the coral reefs here in Belize. It is badly out of kilter to over fishing. However, that alone cannot make alive reefs that have been dead from my own observations for over 55 years.


A reef theory that might interest Trevor.

If you look at a tree that is growing over time. You notice how it grows to the sunlight. The branches, leaves and buds keep making the tree taller and wider, like an umbrella.

If you look at the Great Barrier Reef, Suppose the reef is growing only into the direction of the wind and waves are coming from, plus requiring sunlight. In other words the reef is growing at the surf line, down to a depth of about 30 feet. Which would be a sunlight limitation. It is growing outward, into the deeper water. Perhaps there are things coming in the waves that allow them to grow that way. Like oxygen, or micro nutrients. That would explain while the shallow reef behind the live reef corals, are dead. Similar to the lower branches of a tree. Except the barrier reef grows upwards and outwards into incoming sea ocean water waves. It would not be unusual for reef corals to require specific narrow environmental envelope conditions to live and grow. You see it all the time, as specific corals only grow and flourish in specific geographical locations. There are also symbiotic relationships between corals and the action of water and sunlight. You find ELKHORN coral for instance, ONLY in breaking surf, coming from the ocean. They grow in about a 40 foot swath down the outer edge of the Barrier Reef.

Something to think about. If the dead reef is very wide, then the vast wide dead coral is simply the underlying branches that no longer have access to enough food and oxygen. The reef would only be growing on the outer edge of the reef. We do know that the reef line is moving away Eastward from Caye Caulker geologically speaking.

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