Lonely Planet Writer

Belize's reef saved by researchers who stumble on solution

Belize is well known for the glistening Caribbean waters that lie off its coastline – a peek under the surface reveals a submarine world full of vibrant coral, energetic fish and plenty of other creatures sure to pique your curiosity. Such an ecosystem exists in a delicate balance that human impact can often disrupt. When a reef off the coast of Placencia began showing signs of strain, a Florida professor and her doctoral student set out to solve the mystery and save the delicate biosphere.

Laughing Bird Caye is an island off the coast of Placencia, Belize. Image by Danita Delimont/Getty Images

Dr. Maya Trotz and doctoral candidate Christine Prouty discovered the issue in 2014 when they were working on finding beneficial uses for wastewater in coastal communities like Placencia. They discovered that the facilities at Laughing Bird Caye National Park were the root of the problem; the septic system created a runoff that then escaped into the surrounding waters, causing excessive algae growth and affecting nearby reefs.

South Water Caye, Stann Creek, Belize. Image by Mark Webster/Getty Images

Trotz and Prouty then worked with two groups, Eco-Friendly Solutions and the Southern Environmental Association, to design a new septic system that would eliminate the runoff and keep the reef healthy; the system was installed earlier this month, just ahead of new pushes for tourism in the area. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Prouty said “we were the right people at the right time. We were experts on wastewater who knew how to put people together to make a difference.”

Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americana) in reef near Placencia, Belize Image by Doug Cheeseman/Getty Images

The reef off the coast of Placencia is part of the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest reef in the world, following Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Belize’s reef runs 190 miles along the coast and is also home to several atolls, ring-shaped coral islands that rise above the water’s surface. The region is known for its astounding biodiversity, an asset that continues to draw thousands of visitors per year.