A fellowship through the Helen and Peter Bing Foundation and the Earthwatch Institute enabled me to spend two weeks last month working with principle investigator Burton Shank of Boston University, studying coral recovery in relation to Marine Protected Areas.

Our team of four was based out of the Sapodilla Cayes, or “Sap’s” as they are locally called.

The Sapodilla Cayes, a small group of low-lying sandy islands (also called keys or cays) on the southern tip of the Mesoamerican barrier reef, are governed by Belize, although they are closer to Honduras and Guatemala.

After a three-hour boat ride that left everyone soaked from head to toe from rough seas, we set foot on Frank’s Caye, a tropical paradise the size of a football field.

Aside from a few local fishermen “hand-lining” or “free-diving” for lobster, these islands seemed untouched.

But over the next two weeks, I learned that the actions of the people around the Bay of Honduras have taken their toll upon the health of the reef.

The past 50 years have brought about an 80 percent decline in coral reefs worldwide, in part due to warming ocean temperatures and declining water quality.

Because of its remote location, fishing pressure is minimal in the Sap’s. Yet other human impacts, such as excess nutrients flowing from agricultural and shrimp farms along the coast, have caused algae to smother large sections of the reef.

In the presence of increased nutrients, algae will grow over the corals, leading to the corals’ demise.

Larger populations of algae-eating fishes keep the increased algal growth in check within the protected areas.

Controlling nutrient inputs from land-based sources and creating “no fishing” zones to increase fish populations will be crucial steps in stopping the decline of one of the most biologically rich ecosystems on our planet.

Our study was designed to monitor how quickly stony corals heal themselves, depending upon location, either inside or outside a protected area.

Our research was the beginning of a three-year study and our initial findings were interesting. Results showed that many of the corals located inside the protected area healed at a faster rate.

This was primarily due to the larger population of fishes that graze algae off the corals, leading to less competition for the corals and a shorter healing time.

Other work that was accomplished during the time on the Cayes included using Global Positioning System (GPS) to map out the official “No Take Zone” for the Belize government, performing photo transects to document coral health throughout the reef, and collecting otiliths (ear bones) and tissue samples from local fish species to better understand food web dynamics.

Belize is a wonderful country, filled with warm people, Mayan ruins and beautiful landscapes.

The experience was not only a glimpse into current coral research, but also a journey into the culture of this small Central American country.

[As an educator at Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, Nick Fash spends his days teaching students about the ocean habitat off the Southern California coast and what we can do to protect it.]