The world’s second largest reef is in the Caribbean Sea, stretching some 450 miles from Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula to the Bay Islands off northern Honduras. While it is about a third the length of Australia’s Great Barrier reef, the Mesoamerican Caribbean reef teems with a multitude of animals, including 60 types of coral and more than 500 reef fish species. The ecosystem is also the site of two major international conservation initiatives, one well under way and another just launched.
In 1998 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) identified the Mesoamerican Caribbean reef as a priority ecosystem and an eco-region of global importance, so it began a long-term effort to conserve and manage the reef. The WWF project, supported by the Ocean Fund and such foundations as Summit, MacArthur, and Packard, works with the cooperation of local groups and governments in the four countries whose eastern shorelines face the offshore expanse of coral — Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. From her WWF office in Guatemala, coordinator Sylvia Marín explains that a great deal of effort first was spent gathering and working with experts from all four countries to “establish an eco-regional vision, which has since been adopted by local organizations that want to work together and are now translating this vision into concrete actions.”
Marín points to early successes of the project, particularly in Mexico, where WWF orchestrated a co-management agreement among fishing cooperatives and managers of the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve, off the southeast coast of the Yucatán peninsula. The richest coral-reef site in Mexico, Banco Chinchorro holds 95 coral species and is the breeding site for more than 200 species of fish. Its lagoons and beaches are also important habitat for local and migrating birds and three species of endangered sea turtles. Illegal fishing in the reserve has been greatly curtailed, and WWF is working to gain eco-certifications for lobster fisherman who follow careful regulations that ensure populations of the valuable crustaceans are not depleted. Farther north on the Yucatán, the project has spearheaded a study of coastal-tourism development trends in Cancún and other popular destinations in the state of Quintana Roo.
In Cayos Cochinos, a string of small keys off the Caribbean coast of Honduras, WWF is working with a local conservation group, the Honduran Coral Reef Foundation, government authorities, and local residents to manage fishing activities around the reef. According to foundation director Adoni Cubas, the reef is extremely important economically to Honduras, due to its popularity among scuba divers and snorkelers. “Locally,” he adds, “there are communities of ethnic groups — Garifunas and Miskitos — that are dependent on fishing.”
In Guatemala, WWF trained specialists in wetlands management; the country’s relatively small slice of Caribbean coastline is patterned with swamps and estuaries. With the Belize office of the U.S.-based organization, The Nature Conservancy, WWF helped attain protection for Gladden Spit, a spawning area for groupers and snappers that attracts both hungry whale sharks and scuba-diving tourists eager to see the congregation of big fish.
According to Marín, one of the most politically important project triumphs was a public event held in February 2000 among the Maya ruins of Tulum, Mexico. WWF honored the governments of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras and a regional agency called Central American Commission for the Environment and Development, for their pledges to jointly manage and protect the Mesoamerican Caribbean reef. WWF designated the official commitment as a “Gift to the Earth.” Marín says the high public visibility surrounding the ceremony served to both “publicly recognize the governments’ efforts and also to remind them of their commitments.”
In fact, the Central American Commission for the Environment and Development (CCAD in its Spanish acronym), whose members are the environmental ministers from all seven Central American countries, is overseeing another multi-million dollar effort to protect the Mesoamerican Caribbean reef. Working closely with national and local governments, the CCAD project aims to strengthen protection of the reef’s most vulnerable ecosystems and help the governments of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras to harmonize their individual laws and policies that affect the reef’s resources. The initiative is just a few months old and is funded by a $10.3 million grant, over six years, from the Global Environmental Facility, a fund managed by the World Bank and the United Nations.
According to CCAD executive secretary Mauricio Castro, the two projects have not yet coordinated their efforts as well as they should, but acknowledges that they must work together closely. “Our intention is to involve as many people as we can,” he says.
Marín agrees that collaboration with CCAD is vital and is already underway. “Considering the magnitude of threats the reef faces,” she says, “and the relatively limited budgets we have to combat these problems, we must coordinate our efforts as much as possible or we are just wasting our time.”
Deforestation, pollution, global warming, overfishing, and infrastructure construction are the principal pressures on the reef, by Marín’s count. Deforestation and construction, even far upstream from the coast, send tons of soils into rivers, which carry the sediments out to sea, where they blanket and smother the reef, killing the coral and wiping out fish nurseries. When farms, industry, hotels, and homes replace forests, killing contaminants such as chemicals and sewage are added to the ocean-bound discharge.
Scientists have shown that coral reefs are extremely sensitive to water temperature changes. When oceans are warmer than usual, reefs suffer a stress phenomenon known as coral bleaching. While corals can often recover from bleaching, in extreme cases, they die. Reports of coral bleaching have greatly increased in the past two decades; scientists blame the weather event known as El Niño and global climate change, which has increased sea surface temperatures.
“Most of the international discussions of global climate change have been focused on land use, forests and clean technologies, while until now, the impact on the marine environment has been ignored,” Marín points out. “But now we know that coral reefs worldwide will be among the first ecosystems we could lose to effects of climate change.”
In spite of the challenges, she feels optimistic. “I would say we can achieve our goals in five to ten years by consolidating coastal and marine protected areas, and by working with the tourism and agro-industrial sectors to control contamination and reduce habitat loss.” Already project leaders have begun dialogues with several agricultural export industries and with major cruise ship companies to encourage them to change polluting practices.
It isn’t easy to encourage conservation of an ecosystem that few people ever see. “The reef is a concept, something you see in the films of Jacques Cousteau or on the Discovery Channel,” Marín says. “It is not a palpable reality for most people.”
In spite of the huge economic value of the Mesoamerican Caribbean reef to people, in terms of fish and tourism; in spite of WWF’s and CCAD’s work; and in spite of commitments from four governments, resource conservation work in the region continues to focus on land, forest, and agricultural policies. As Marín puts it, “The sea is still the fourth or fifth priority.” But she adds, “This is changing as we see more and more young people interested in learning about and protecting this valuable ecosystem.”
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