Devil Fish

Last Week in Belize: Field Work in Mangrove Forests
by Emma Kelley -- September 5th, 2014

Hello all! I’m back in North Carolina, starting on my second year in the MEM program, but I still have plenty of stories to tell of my experiences working in Belize this summer.

As a part of our group masters project, a preliminary assessment of the blue carbon potential of Belize’s mangrove forests, Sylvia and I need to determine exactly how much blue carbon is stored in Belize’s mangrove ecosystem.  While we can use existing monitoring data on the mangrove trees to estimate the total above-ground carbon, the carbon stored in the soil is still a mystery.  To shed light on the total stock of blue carbon, we need to determine how much carbon is held in the soil of the mangroves.

This is no easy feat. First, we had to find a place to collect these samples. We quickly decided on Turneffe Atoll, which has some of the largest areas of mangrove forest in Belize and also happens to be the location of a field station belonging to one our project partners: the University of Belize’s Environmental Research Institute (ERI). We secured transportation out to the field station for our last full week in Belize. Check!

Next, we had to develop a protocol. Using different sources from both Southeast Asia, a blue carbon research hotspot, and other places in Central America, we developed a protocol we (hoped) would work in Belize’s mangroves. Check!

Then, we had to find the proper equipment for soil sampling. This was perhaps the hardest part of the preparation stage and almost doomed this field study. To collect the soil samples we needed, we required a specific type of soil auger. ERI had a small soil auger, but not the exact one we were looking for. After a month of contacting various government departments, educational institutes, and even engineering firms, we came up with nothing. We were forced to get creative with the smaller auger we had available. Check! Sort of.

Last, but certainly not least, we had to figure out a way to ship our samples from Belize to the US. I will not fill pages and pages of this blog with that struggle, but we managed to get everything in order so our samples could be shipped to Florida for processing. Check!

With everything in order, we found ourselves on a boat out of Belize City to the Calabash Caye Field Station (CCFS). We hitched a ride with ERI’s science team of marine biologists and student volunteers, who were headed out to the field station for annual monitoring.  Meeting these incredible folks and having the opportunity to watch them work was invaluable.  We learned so much more about the work done in Belize from environment students like us.


Welcome to the Calabash Caye Field Station!              Photo credit: Emma Kelley


Calabash Caye Field Station.  Photo credit: Emma Kelley


The dock and boats. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

Our first morning on Calabash Caye, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast, gathered our gear, then set out to our first sampling site, which is conveniently located behind the field station itself.  Starting at that first sampling site was a tense moment.  Would our protocol work? What if our solution to the short auger problem wouldn’t work? Would we have enough time to gather all the samples we wanted? Would the bugs eat us alive?


Welcome to the mangroves! Photo credit: Emma Kelley


Sylvia and the auger. Photo credit: Emma Kelley


Gathering soil samples. Photo credit: Emma Kelley


The soil we were uncovering had been buried for a VERY long time. It was pretty stinky. Photo credit: Sylvia Chang


Success! Photo credit: Sylvia Chang


Success! Photo credit: Emma Kelley

Although we had to decrease the number of samples we gathered, our protocol worked out! We left the first sampling site triumphant, with our samples in our cooler.

Over the next few days, we covered five sampling sites. Getting to the first site was a piece of cake compared to the remaining spots.  To get to some sites, we jumped from the boat into knee-deep water and waded into the mangroves.  At other sites, we jumped from the boat and onto the mangrove trees, where we climbed from branch to branch, with the cooler and shovel in tow.


Jump! Photo credit: Emma Kelley


The best kind of field work is muddy field work.  Photo credit: Sylvia Chang


Go Blue Carbon Team! Photo credit: Liz Scottman


Climbing from branch to branch, passing the cooler along. Photo credit: Liz Scottman


Photo credit: Liz Scottman

While we were digging for our soil, ERI’s monitoring team gathered a variety of data on the mangrove forest.  In addition to monitoring the mangroves, their team also was there to gather data on the coral reefs and fish populations around the atoll.  After we completed our work at one mangrove monitoring site, the boat would race out to a coral monitoring site, where the team would don their SCUBA gear and dive down to the reef below. What did this mean for us? SNORKEL TIME!


Sylvia snorkeling. Photo credit: Emma Kelley


Beautiful coral. Photo credit: Emma Kelley


A soapfish! Photo credit: Emma Kelley


Coral and fish. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

The reefs on Turneffe Atoll are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Each time we jumped in the water, I was floored by the diversity of fish I saw. One species we saw that was not-so-exciting was the lionfish. Dun Dun DAH!

Lionfish are a beautiful species of fish native to the Pacific Ocean. They were (illegally) released into the Atlantic where they have flourished. In the Atlantic, they have no natural predators, so their numbers exploded.   Belize is no exception. This large population of lionfish is feasting on the smaller reef fish, such as chromis, disrupting the ecosystem.

A few management tactics have been developed to combat this hungry invader. Some areas have tried to develop a fishery for lionfish. Last spring, I had the pleasure of eating a lionfish in Florida.  Although the spines of a lionfish are venemous, their flesh is not. In fact, it’s amazingly tasty.


Whole fried lionfish at the Square Grouper in Florida.       Photo credit: Emma Kelley

Another method for removing lionfish is to allow recreational divers to fish them out. I finally got to try my hand at lionfish-spearing during the snorkel breaks after sampling in the mangroves. After many, many misses, and only with the help of a very patient teacher, I eventually speared a few.  A team back at the field station was collecting lionfish for their research, so our catch went to the team for processing, and then to the kitchen for dinner.

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I got one! Photo credit: Liz Scottman

By the end of our week at the Calabash Caye Field Station, we had our samples ready for shipping to the states. We left with new friends, new experiences, and many bug-bites.

Now, we wait for our samples to arrive in Florida for processing. We’re anxious to see the results and what it might mean for the blue carbon market potential of Belize!

Stay tuned for more Belize adventures and the start of my 2nd year in the MEM program!

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