lighthouse reefIt is a warm spring night on Lighthouse Reef Atoll, an isolated collection of islands about 40 miles off the coast of Belize. The 15 students of the Ecology and Conservation of Coral Reefs class and their instructors sit around a bonfire on a beach on the north side of Long Caye, their home for the last 7 days. During spring break, with the help of CEES, the Department of Biology, and the Center for Global Programs and Studies, they saw the incredible biodiversity the atoll has to offer, above and below the water’s surface. They also saw first-hand its fragility and the activities that threaten it.

The first day they arrived the students plunged into the ocean and into another world teeming with life and a phenomenal diversity of corals, sponges, fish, and myriad invertebrates. Over the following days the students saw the coral reefs, seagrass beds, and sand flats of the marine environment as well as the remarkable mangrove forests, inland lagoons, and seabird colonies of the islands. They saw the progression of life from the fish nurseries in the prop roots of the mangrove forests to the adult populations along the coral reef walls that extend from the surface of the water into the abyss thousands of feet below. They also saw fishermen taking all they could from the reef and heard of the plans to develop the mangrove islands into massive resorts. In short, they saw one of the last, best coral reefs in the Caribbean under siege.  “When you see dozens of shark fins drying in the sun, or hear plans to bulldoze one of the best stands of mangrove in the western hemisphere, it makes conservation very real, and very immediate,” said Miles Silman, CEES director and instructor on the course.

Upon returning to school, the students themselves were faced with a challenge: use their knowledge and appreciation of the reef to develop plans to study and conserve it. They have taken on issues from sustainable development of the islands to management of the fisheries and will develop these ideas into project proposals that they will present to the rest of the class. This final class project is, however, different from most. When they are through, many of these proposals will go on to be presented to the private owners of the islands, as well as governmental and private conservation groups in Belize. The students are using their experience to develop real, implemented conservation policy that can have a huge impact on the future of the atoll.

One student from last year’s class, Max Messinger of the CEES-funded Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Lab (sUAS) tagged along with the class to implement the first phase of the proposal he wrote a year before. Now a biology graduate student, he used his unmanned aircraft to fly over the two largest islands of the atoll and collect imagery. He and two undergraduate students from this year’s class will use the imagery to create updated vegetation maps of the islands in order to track how the forests are changing and have a baseline for future change.

The threats facing Lighthouse Reef Atoll and places like it around the world are real and present major challenges to those who wish to conserve them. With the help of biology faculty and resources from CEES, Wake Forest students are developing ways to address these threats and work toward the continued existence and health of these last, best places on Earth.