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The Belize Barrier Reef starts life as a living world of reefs, molluscs and centipedes – but conservationists are shining a light on a beautiful, endangered chapter: reanimated reefs.
A local artist who wants to be known only as Juan has built a marine zoo, putting together a series of plastic models and inviting the public to delve into tiny streams of water to see what they look like before they’re flattened and reformed as coral reefs.
“People can get the false hope of being in the wild, but they don’t know what they’re doing,” he said of the 3D models he has built using lights, plastics, artificial moving parts and lasers.
Juan said some of the models also show what larvae look like.
“People say it looks like they are just eating the model,” he said.
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His fish-focused show at Bogotá’s Museum of Plastic Fantasticia made its debut this month and sets the stage for a life-changing conservation effort at the Belize Barrier Reef, where volunteers plan to revive sections of corals already repopulated with fragments of corals killed by last year’s El Niño rains.
The restoration project is part of a project to increase biodiversity and the resilience of Florida’s mangrove forests as part of the state’s effort to mitigate the impact of future climate change.
The Belize reef, which stretches along 380km (242 miles) along the Pacific coast, is one of the most diverse coral reef systems in the world, hosting a multitude of endemic species that have evolved to regenerate. It’s one of only two species of coral worldwide.
But it has fared badly under current warming and acidification trends. More than 60% of its coral has been lost since the 1970s, along with an estimated 36,000 nesting pairs of marine birds.
Researchers believe it’s just a matter of time before the largest coral reef system in the Americas deteriorates completely, destroying several islands and a threatened ecosystem of nesting colonies for nesting sea turtles and piranhas.
But a surge in fishing and irrigation water waste in the area is now making the situation worse.
In Central America, 72% of the population lives in poverty. With thousands of people currently visiting the reefs and feeding their families by diving there, the government needs to bring in help to shore up the communities that rely on them.
The intervention was begun by the international nonprofit Pacific Islands Marine Institute (PIME) which is funding the effort. The coral reef restoration project is expected to cost the government $5m over the next decade and will include helping some of the island communities that already depend on reef tourism.
The majority of the effort so far has been directed at the Great Abaco Reef, a protected area in northwestern Belize with an average of about 200,000 visitors per year.
This image was taken on the Great Abaco Reef in Belize. Photograph: Pacific Islands Marine Institute
The Great Abaco has been losing about 150,000 coral-associated fish and coral every year since 2015.
“It has become harder to keep track of where and how much reef damage has occurred to the Great Abaco reef,” the institute said in a blog.
They expect that by 2021 when the new artificial reef is operational, those numbers will have reached alarming proportions.