Researchers in Mexico bolster efforts to protect the Mesoamerican Reef

Coral restoration activities
Quintana Roo, Mexico
Researchers in Mexico bolster efforts to protect the Mesoamerican Reef

Episode 1: Stony coral tissue loss disease advances throughout the Mexican Caribbean

In 2018, alarm bells went off when it was determined there was a high incidence of stony coral tissue loss disease, also known as white syndrome, along the Mesoamerican Reef, or MAR, the largest barrier reef in the Western hemisphere.

To produce a detailed report about the health of Mexico’s reef system and offer recommendations for protection, scientists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) carried out monitoring studies at Akumal Bay in Quintana Roo. The scientists used remote sensing techniques aided by satellite and drone imaging to create maps that helped identify high-priority conservation zones.

With the help of these maps, which UNAM’s scientists shared with authorities from Mexico’s National Natural Protected Areas Committee (CONANP), it will be possible to work out a more sensible strategy toward reef conservation.

Episode 2:  Coastal management insufficient to stop the disease

Biologist Baruch Figueroa, coordinator of the Akumal Ecological Center’s Coastal Ecosystems Program, says the stony coral tissue loss disease currently attacking coral reefs is the biggest threat to marine ecosystems the center has registered since starting operations in 1993.

Dr. Joaquín Rodrigo Garza, a researcher at UNAM who has carried out studies at Akumal Bay for 24 years, says he has also witnessed the deterioration of reef communities due to this disease. To better understand the reef’s current behavior, Dr. Garza and his team currently use drone and satellite images that allow them to monitor very large areas.

In 2015, Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) established a refuge for fishery-targeted species in Akumal, and in 2016, CONANP designated Akumal Bay a federal environmentally protected zone (it’s now categorized as a refuge area for the protection of marine species). Yet these two conservation management tools are not enough to stop the white syndrome from spreading since doing so will require more than controlling fishery activities and limiting tourists’ access to the área, the researchers say.

Episode 3: Protection for at-risk coral species just part of the solution

The purpose of Mexico’s Official Species Protection and Conservation Norm 059 is to identify wild flora and fauna at risk of extinction. Thanks to Akumal Ecological Center’s efforts, on November 14, 2010, two reef-formation species – Orbicella annularis and Orbicella faveolata – were included under this norm, which means there is now a legal recourse for their protection.

However, including those species in the norm is just one step. “Civil society needs to come together, get organized and get involved in the correct exploitation of its surroundings,” says Arturo Orozco, founder of Akumal Dive Center.

He says a study of the bay’s bearing capacity also needs to be updated to know how many people and vessels it can support. That way it would be possible to avoid overexploitation by tourist enterprises and the ecosystem’s conditions would improve.

Episode 4: Restoration, proper regulation needed to protect reef health

The agent causing white syndrome – a disease that affects coral’s soft tissue— is yet to be identified, and while many factors may influence its emergence, poor wastewater management is an important contributor.

Sewage water from Quintana Roo’s homes and hotels is poorly treated, if at all. Current legislation on this issue establishes that if a home has no connection to the sewage system then a septic tank must be built. But this regulation is not appropriate when taking into account the Yucatan Peninsula’s soil, which is porous and permeable.

“It is as if we were fertilizing sea waters; the organic matter contained in these wastewaters feeds the algae,” says Baruch Figueroa.

An excess of algae is harmful for the reef because its proliferation creates shade that prevents the sun’s rays from penetrating all the way to the reef’s bottom. Algae also consumes oxygen corals need to develop healthily.

In order to improve the reef’s current conditions, participation from the government, business sector and civil society is needed. In an effort to contribute to this improvement, Akumal Ecological Center has implemented a reef-restoration program focused on the planting of coral fragments in artificial structures in, among other places, an area known as Media Luna (Half Moon). Scientists and conservationists are thus seeking to restore various species of coral and regenerate reef habitats for fish populations so that, little by little, the ecosystem’s biodiversity may return.

Dr. Joaquín Rodrigo Garza points to the need to properly legislate residential and tourist wastewater systems, as well as regulate the nutrients and pollutants in the sewage.

“If this central aspect is not addressed, any conservation, protection or restoration effort toward ensuring the Mesoamerican Reef system’s health will be insufficient,” Garza says.

These are summaries of a documentary video package that was originally published in four parts in Spanish in Milenio on 17 Feb. 2020. Support for the reporting was provided by the Earth Journalism Network's Mesoamerican Reef Reporting project.

Banner image: Biologist Baruch Figueroa conducting coral restoration activities as part of the Coastal Ecosystems Program / Credit: CEA Archive

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