Alive and Diverse

by Paul Sánchez Navarro, Centro Ecológico Akumal

The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is alive and diverse, from Honduras to the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Over 600 species of coral, fish and other sea creatures inhabit the coastal and marine ecosystems which make up the reef system that is considered the second largest system in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. This reef ecosystem is also the foundation of our coastal paradise that brings so many people to the area and provides a substantial income to the local, regional and national economies.

Mesoamerican reef mural
photo by Lauren Floden

One species that depends on a healthy reef and that is especially very close to our hearts in Akumal is the sea turtle. Two species of sea turtles nest on the beaches of the Mexican Caribbean, the Green and Loggerhead turtles. Nesting season has begun for these ancient and magnificent animals and continues the rest of the summer and into the fall, with the last of the hatchlings leaving the shores in early November.

To keep it alive and diverse many people are working to better understand the coral reef ecosystem and to improve reef management. The threats are numerous; from climate change, with warmer ocean waters to water pollution, sedimentation and direct destruction from tourism activities, all creating stresses to the coral and killing it. Coral bleaching occurs when water temperatures are above normal for an extended period of time and the zooxanthellae (microscopic algae providing about 95% of the energy needs of the coral) living in each coral polyp leaves its home, thus the “bleached” look. If the algae do not return to the coral polyps within a certain amount of time, the coral dies.

coral on Mesoamerican Reef
photo by Miguel Angel Maldonado
Increased nutrients or pathogens from water pollution can cause coral diseases as well, or an increase in algal growth which suffocates the coral. Contaminants also stress fish and turtle species, increasing diseases. More and more sea turtles are being infected with a herpes-type illness called fibropapilloma, and it is believed by some that increased stress in the ocean environment can contribute to the spread of the tumors.

Sedimentation, whether from soils coming downriver after inland deforestation and settling on the reef or from excess motor boat activity stirring the waters, can suffocate the corals as well.

Finally, so many people coming to the area on holiday do not realize that coral is alive and that when they touch it or walk on it they damage or even kill it. The protective mucus layer surrounding the coral is removed, leaving it vulnerable to a variety of threats.

Research and experience over the years have helped to increase understanding of the life dynamics of a barrier reef system. This has also lead to international agreements which seek to protect and better manage the reefs, as well as the realization that more research must be done.

In 1997, the Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize signed the Tulúm Declaration, beginning the Mesoamerican Reef Initiative, with an Action Plan for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of the Mesoamerican Reef. This Plan provides for the main elements for the conservation and sustainable use for the reef ecosystem and the whole region. From this came the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef Systems Project (MBRS) funded by the Global Environment Facility through the World Bank, the WWF Eco-regional Program, the The Nature Conservancy MAR Program, the ICRAN-MAR Project, the Bay Islands Project, the Sustainable Coastal Tourism Project for the Atlantic Coast of Honduras, the Port Security and Monitoring Project for the Gulf of Honduras, the Healthy Mesoamerican Reef Initiative, along with numerous smaller more localized projects like those in which Centro Ecológico Akumal participates.

fish on Mesoamerican Reef
photo by Hamid Rad
The overall objective of the MBRS project is to enhance the protection of the reef ecosystem, including the coastal habitats. The project helps countries to strengthen and coordinate policies and actions to conserve and sustainably use the resources of the system. The regional objectives include strengthening Marine Protected Areas; developing and using standardized data management system of monitoring and broader use of the findings; promoting ways to reduce non-sustainable patterns of economic exploitation of MBRS, focusing initially on the fisheries and tourism sectors; increasing local and national capacity for environmental management through education, information sharing and training; and facilitating the strengthening and coordinating of national policies, regulations, and institutional arrangements for marine ecosystem conservation and sustainable use (see, for more information).

So many years after the declaration, a variety of actors are coming together in different forums to assess where we are going with reef conservation. Have we improved management? Do we at least understand the ecosystem better? Will the science help us make better decisions in how we use the coast and sea? These are questions we ask each day in continuing efforts to protect the reef. New initiatives are developed and more integration of science to decision making is occurring.

Centro Ecológico Akumal (CEA) is participating in these regional and global efforts through its several conservation programs. We run a Sea Turtle Protection Program to help both the Green and Loggerhead turtles survive. Through all our conservation programs CEA works to improve ecosystem management. The organization works locally in Akumal to test and demonstrate innovative management ideas and then share experiences on what is working to reduce the threats and help keep the ecosystem alive.

The new Akumal Bays Management Program is a key part of these efforts. It attempts to bring all the actors together to improve how we use the unique bays of Akumal, from Yal Ku to Aventuras Akumal, with objectives in protection and restoration of coral to organizing the number of boats in the bays and improving management of the multitudes of snorkelers in local waters. The fishermen, dive shops and hotels have come together to help define actions and limits to the use of the bays, with the ecological guidance of CEA.

As visitors and residents in the area we participate in the destruction of the reef in some way, whether it is our inadequate waste treatment systems or carbon output from excess driving, to eating freshly caught grouper out of season or stepping on the coral or grabbing sea turtles in an effort to “connect” with the wildlife. However, we can also participate in helping to keep the reef alive. There are a variety of things a visitor to the area may do to make sure impact is kept to a minimum. First, just by respecting all wildlife we are helping to protect it. Then we can also make sure to not touch or damage coral in any way while snorkeling or diving. We can also help by educating others; letting them know it is not good to ride a sea turtle or harass it in any way.

Residents can also participate in creating a healthy future for the coastal and marine ecosystem by making sure all their waste is well managed, that waste water does not reach the groundwater or sea in any way, not building on the dunes or destroying mangroves, among many other positive actions.

We hope you enjoy your time in this Caribbean paradise and help us to protect it.


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