Katie Kaszmetskie, a science journalism concentrator at Columbia College Chicago, is the Grand Prize winner, College Division, of the McCormick Foundation Environmental Journalism Awards competition held earlier in 2009.
By Katie Kaszmetskie
You’re swimming in the ocean and suddenly you realize you’re in the middle of a pool of silvery-blue fish. Fascinated by their iridescent glow, you stop to admire their seemingly choreographed movements. A banded butterfly fish, with its black and white stripes accented by fluorescent yellow highlights, jets from behind the fingerlike projections of soft coral swaying freely with the tide of the ocean. A school of squid with long mantles and translucent fins gracefully glides past. You are mesmerized; you can’t get enough.
This is the scene in the Mesoamerican Reef that, according to the World Wildlife Fund Web site, covers 115 million acres. It stretches from the northern tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to the Bay Islands in northern Honduras, along the coast of Belize and Guatemala. It is the second largest barrier reef in the world, second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Its beauty is unrivaled, but it is endangered.
“It really needs a change,” says Jerry Leno, 41, who has lived here all his life and fished these waters for 15 years.
Leno has watched heavy storms create high waves that thrash against the coast and rip coral apart. The coral, which provides a clean, safe environment for the fish, is shrinking because of changing weather patterns linked to global warming. Human behavior, however, also creates problems.
Leno, who spends an average of six hours a day on the water, has seen an increase in trash in waters and on beaches. Life-long Roatan (Honduras) resident Darlington Bodden, 71, agrees, and says plastic, like bags and bottles, smother marine life. To prevent this, people use less plastic, and reuse containers and bags if possible. Using more biodegradable materials would help, too.
Leno says mangroves, trees that root in the ocean to protect the reef, are being destroyed. Michele Hoffman, marine biology professor at Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, says mangroves are being clear-cut for coastal real estate development and to establish shrimp farms. They act as an ocean filtration system because they prevent mud and waste materials from “choking marine life,” she says.
While in the ocean, Bodden said people should anchor their boats further away from reefs because if they travel too shallow, anchors can knock off pieces of coral and boat paint can rub against coral. Exhaust fumes and oils kill fish and coral, Bodden says, and advised that boats with four-cycle engines emit fewer chemicals into the water.
Divers themselves also damage the reef. People should not touch marine life, rest on the ocean floor near corals and must be cautious not to make contact while taking photographs. Any disturbances or destruction to the reef should be reported to dive-tour leaders, or marine park workers in the area where they work.
Tourists should avoid buying any souvenirs that come from the reef such as sea fans and shells, pieces of coral or preserved dead animals. Divers should never collect reef elements to take home as souvenirs or for use in fish tanks. Says Hoffman: “Take only pictures and leave only bubbles… If you want to pet something, buy a dog!”
People who live near and visit the reef are not solely responsible for protecting it. Here in the states, we should use the same preservation practices such as cutting back our consumption of plastics and non-biodegradable materials. Conservation of natural resources like electricity and water is also important in the fight against global warming.
As Hoffman says, “The health of the reef is critical because it is the foundation for that [ocean] ecosystem and its significance cann ot be measured in terms of value…and cannot be readily quantified.”
Donations can be made to organizations that work to protect Marine life and preserve the beauty of the fascinating reefs.