Given the pressures on the world’s coral reefs and the new threats that lurk, theories about the future of this vital ecosystem are divided.
For Eric Jordán Dahlgren, a researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences and Limnology (ICMyL) at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), in the best case scenario, the reefs of the Mexican Caribbean will be transformed into something unknowable, and, in this century, they could totally lose their capacity to produce the environmental services they currently provide.
“The problem is that corals are very slow to grow and reproduce successfully. In biological terms … probably my grandchildren will not enjoy anything similar to what I saw,” he said.
On the other hand, Melina Soto, the coordinator for Mexico of the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative, highlights corals’ resilience: “They are organisms that have existed for centuries and they probably will continue after us. I don’t think corals are completely extinguished, but certain species will be,” she said, citing Jordan's research.
In the 1980s, corals such as Elk Horn (Acropora palmata) and Servant Horn (Acropora cervicornis), were almost eliminated by white band disease, which affects the soft corals and leaves stark white bands along the coral’s branches.
“They are still there, although in less quantity,” Soto notes. “Then we have lighthouses of hope that allow us to continue fighting for these ecosystems.”
One of those lighthouses of hope is the Biosphere Reserve of “Banco Chinchorro,” a coral reef located in the south of Quintana Roo. It is the only reef – so far – that has been spared the presence of white syndrome, said Lorenzo Álvarez Filip, president of the Mexican Society of Coral Reefs, who highlights the need for conservation.
White syndrome kills corals’ living tissue, leaving its calcium carbonate skeleton defenseless and prone to erosion. Observations show that once this happens the affected coral colony will die within weeks or months.
The three researchers cited above concluded that when coral species become extinct, they will be replaced by algae, which will cause the loss of the original structure of the reef and its biodiversity.
“If this condition continues, we could see a very different picture in five or 10 years,” said Soto, noting that already the reef does not resemble what it was 30 or 40 years ago.
Insufficient, but indispensable and urgent efforts
Reversing the current degradation is almost impossible, but to curb or reduce it, citizens, organizations, private initiatives and authorities have launched several actions.
At the regional level, between 1997 and 1998, the four countries bordering the Mesoamerican Reef signed the Tulum Declaration, which committing to conserve and protect the reef, the largest in the Atlantic at 1,500 kilometers in length.
However, these agreements have not been efficiently applied, revised, or renewed.
In response, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) agreed in April 2019 to finance a project called “Integrated Management of the Basin to the SAM Reef” (MAR2R), which for five years will focus on the coast, basins, coastal and marine resources of the Mesoamerican Reef (or SAM, it’s Spanish acronym).
Since the end of 2016, Mexico’s National Institute for Fisheries (INAPESCA) and the government of Quintana Roo have been developing a project to repopulate, with 265,000 corals, the reef area in the north of the state by 2022.
The project could reach 300,000 coral colonies and includes 13 species, Acropora palmata, Acropora conifer, Acropora cervicornis and thousands of microfragments, according to INAPESCA.
In 2019, the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (Conanp), together with UNAM, INAPESCA and the Healthy Reefs Initiative, developed an action plan to counteract white syndrome, including actions to raise awareness and inform the private sector, tourists and residents about the disease. The program is voluntary.
For the management of sargassum - a pelagic macroalgae that alters water conditions - the state government invested more than 300 million pesos in 2018 in the placement of barriers to stop its progress and remove it from public beaches.
In 2019 the state repeated and refined the strategy, adding the collaboration of the Secretariat of the Navy (SEMAR). On December 10, the government reported that from May to October, 544.15 tons of sargassum were collected at sea and 84,549 tons on the shores of beaches with the help of 22,602 people, public officials and citizen volunteers among them.
Barriers were also placed along 18,057 meters of beach and 13,377 meters of sea, and four sargassum sweepers were purchased.
Recently, the state administration together with the SEMAR, rescued and repaired a boat to pick up sargassum that was abandoned in 2015. It has the capacity to collect up to 80 tons of sargassum daily in shallow waters. It landed in Puerto Juarez on December 9 and will be operational this spring. Now, the Navy is in the process of building six ships to harvest the macroalgae, with one already complete.
Meanwhile, the Puerto Morelos community has created a Sargassum Action Protocol, the most advanced in the state, which involves the hotel sector, the scientific community, service providers and the municipal government. It establishes guidelines for installing barriers, using barges for collection or collecting sargassum by hand, disposing it in special confinements and industrializing it.
At the end of 2019, 12 of 17 hotels in Puerto Morelos had placed barriers on their coastal fronts. The Protocol was presented last October at a high-level meeting in Guadalupe Island, French overseas territory, and has been the basis for guiding actions in the rest of the MAR.
In Cancun, more than 9,000 citizens and public officials manually cleaned the beaches over 15 Saturdays, from May 18 to August 31. They withdrew an average of 817 tons of macroalgae, as part of a strategy that the municipal government called “All against the sargassum.” It was awarded the best prevention and civil protection campaign in 2019 by the Reed Latino Award, organized by Campaigns & Election magazine to honor excellence in political campaigning, consulting and campaign management.
From October to August 2019, the municipal administration said it had collected 17,000 tons of sargassum from the beaches.
In parallel, there are projects that compete for funds from the National Council for Science and Technology (Conacyt) to build Sargasso Monitoring Observatories and early warning systems. There are also specific projects focused on the use and commercialization of sargassum – as a source of energy and for the production of footwear, notebooks and kitchen utensils.
Ethical and conscientious revolution needed
Yet the cluster of efforts listed above is not enough, according to the experts and researchers that monitor reef health.
"You have to stop consuming as if there were another planet, because we only have this one,” Soto said pointedly.
María del Carmen Rivas, director of the Puerto Morelos Reef National Parks, called for forceful action. “It requires an ethical and behavioral revolution … We need to be more citizens and make community, but the problem is that not everyone knows how to be a community. We have to be more respectful of our lives, with nature. We care a lot about death and little about life,” she said.
While science communicator Patricia Santos appealed to reason. “No intelligent species destroys its ecosystem. The ethical thing is to recognize that as individuals we are not alone. It is not moral to plunder the planet,” she concluded.
* Translation by Alejandra Serrano Pavón
Banner image: Ecological barriers being put into place to fend off sargassum at Playa del Carmen / Credit: Adriana Varillas