The State of the Mesoamerican Reef: An Interview with the Healthy Reefs Initiative

At Fly Playa, many of our spectacular images are aerial shots of the majestic Caribbean Sea.

Our Playa del Carmen excursions take you up into the heavens, where you can gaze down upon the stunning beauty and colors of both land and sea.

But, of course, it is precisely what is found underneath the surface of the water that provides for such spectacular seascapes.

No matter whether you high in the sky or in the underwater depths of the Caribbean, it is a truly wondrous scene to behold.

The Mesoamerican Reef

Mesoamerican Reef Cozumel diving
Photo credit: Luis Leal

One of the reasons that our region is so stunning just so happens to be the fact that Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya lie directly in front of the world’s second longest barrier reef.

Known as the Mesoamerican Reef, this vital natural habitat stretches all the way from Cancun in the north down to Honduras in the south.

The Mesoamerican Reef is home to an abundant array of marine life and provides sustenance to the entire region while also providing the incredible blue hues that so many people associate with the Mexican Caribbean.

But how healthy is the Mesoamerican Reef? What issues are affecting it and what is being done to ensure its — and our — survival?

We spoke with Marisol Rueda Flores from the Healthy Reefs Initiative to get a better idea.

Marisol Rueda Flores from the Healthy Reefs Initiative
Photo credit: Marisol Rueda Flores/Healthy Reefs Initiative

Who are we speaking with?

My name is Marisol Rueda Flores and I’m the Coordinator in Mexico for the Healthy Reefs Initiative.

What’s the initiative all about?

This initiative began ten years ago with the purpose of generating scientific information about the health of the Mesoamerican Reef. We’re active in four countries: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. We publish bi-anual reports with a series of recommendations about what different areas of society such as the government, the private sector, academia, and civil society can do to improve the health of the barrier reef.

What is the Mesoamerican Reef and why is it so important?

Well, the Mesoamerican Reef is the second largest in the world behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It stretches out over 1,000 kilometers beginning at the tip of Cancun in Mexico down south to the Isla de la Bahía in Honduras. As far as its importance, well for starters 25% reefs are home to 25% of all marine life on the planet.

It’s the first line of defense to protect the coast from natural phenomena such as storms and hurricanes by reducing their force. Moreover, it’s the source of several medicines as well as grouper and snapper for the commercial fisheries.

These are just three aspects of the reef’s importance.

Riviera Maya beach plastic
Photo credit: Karen Fuentes

If the Mesoamerican Reef were a patient, what would be the diagnosis? How would you qualify its state of health?

Actually, we use a scale that goes from one to five, which ranges from critical, poor, fair, good, and very good. We published our last report in 2015. In it, we produce a series of graphics; one for each Mesoamerican country and one for the entire Mesoamerican Reef.

Our results indicated that 17% of the reef is in a critical state, 40% are considered in a poor state, 34% fair, 8% good and just 1% in a very good state.

In the case of Mexico, we produced extremely similar stats: 19% are considered to be in a critical state, 37% poor, 39% fair, and just 5% in a good state. We don’t have one area of the reef in what we could describe as a very good state of health. Those are the numbers for 2015.

In total, we monitor 248 sites along the reef, 86 of which are found in Mexico.

Mesoamerican Reef health
HRI report, 2015 || Photo credit: Healthy Reefs Initiative

What factors most influence the reefs so that they are not in an optimal state of health?

There are numerous threats. We have natural threats and we have man-made threats. In terms of those caused by human beings, the three most worrisome are the inadequate treatment of wastewater, coastal development, and marine contamination as a result of the inadequate treatment of solid waste.

Healthy Reef Initiatives map Mexico
Left: Reality / Right: Ideal || Photo credit: Healthy Reefs Initiative

Is it all bad?

No, it’s not all bad. From our 2012 report to the one we published in 2015 we saw a slight improvement in the reef’s overall health, which went from poor to fair. We still have to await the results from this year, however.

There are sites which are doing quite well. For instance, Cozumel has a 24% coral cover, which is high in comparison to the rest. On average, the coral coverage is about 16% to 18%, so to have 24% is pretty good. This means that the marine parks such as the one in Cozumel are working because they have a higher coral cover.

Something else which has proven to work is what we call the no take zones. These are areas at sea where all fishing operations are strictly forbidden. These no take zones are a part of the work of the Kanan Kay Alliance, which is an NGO with members from all sectors of society including the government, private sector, civil society, and the fishing cooperatives, who make up the backbone of the alliance as the ones who establish the demarcations of the no take zones.

Healthy Reefs Initiative graphic
Photo credit: Healthy Reefs Initiative

What we have seen is that these zones have ten times more biomass of commercial fish such as snappers and groupers as well as herbivorous fish such as the parrot fish than both unprotected areas and even marine refuges where fishing is permitted.

So we’re seeing a highly successful network of no take zones, and the fishing cooperatives have seen the benefits of having more fish in these areas that eventually overflow into areas where it’s allowed to fish.

In the end, this is what could allow us to have sustainable fishing in the region.

There are eight fishing cooperatives working in the Kanan Kay Alliance and they have been highly successful.

As tourists and locals, we can have either a positive or a negative impact. It’s pretty obvious how to have a negative impact. What can we do to be a positive influence?

These are all simple things that we know and have heard before; it’s just about creating a habit. That’s all they are: habits. We take away a vice and replace it with something positive. It’s the same concept as to stop smoking or drinking. They are vices that take time to change, but they can be changed.

Healthy Reefs Initiative tips
Credit: Healthy Reefs Initiative

REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE

There are a lot of ways to have a positive impact, starting with the classic reduce, reuse, recycle.

If we are going to consume water, because obviously we live in an area where heat is a big factor, then rather than purchasing plastic bottles all the time which we have no idea where they’ll end up, you can take a metal bottle and fill it up at your hotel or your home without the necessity to buy more plastic.

Because we really don’t know where all our plastic bottles end up. In the best case scenario they are recycled and reused, but in the worse case scenario they wind up in the ocean.

Plastic remains have even been found at a depth of 5,000 meters. Trash, like us humans, will travel wherever it needs to go. It has no limits.

The same goes for plastic bags. They can be substituted for linen bags for going to the supermarket.

USE ALTERNATIVE ENERGY

We can use alternative energy at home if we have the capacity to install solar panels. We can even simply disconnect our electronic devices. All of those devices that have those little lights that stay on all the time such as microwaves or television, they stay on all day even. In other words, we’re still consuming energy even when we’re not at home. And this energy is creating greenhouse gases and contributing to global warming, which in turn is a factor in higher sea temperatures and, in consequence, coral bleaching.

It’s all one cycle, and these little steps such as disconnecting your microwave when you’re not using it can have an effect. Think if everyone who lives in Quintana Roo or even the world would do that. We can have a positive effect.

Tips Healthy Reefs Initiative
Credit: Healthy Reefs Initiative

RESPECT THE CLOSED SEASONS

Respect the temporary fishing bans or closed seasons that are in place. Too often we are ignorant about the places we are visiting and don’t know what we can eat and when we can eat it. For instance, there are closed seasons or bans on pink conch, grouper, shark, lobster, octopus, and many other species.

Here in Mexico, you can visit the official page of Conapesca in order to know what species are under temporary protection. If you do go to a restaurant and they are still offering it, be sure to:

1) Let them know that you are aware that it is closed season and that you refuse to consume the species because of the ban.
2) Choose something that doesn’t adversely the ecosystem where you are visiting.

Healthy Reefs Initiative Mexico
Credit: Healthy Reefs Initiative

USE BIODEGRADABLE PRODUCTS

Use biodegradable products whenever possible. For example, everything we use winds up and the drain, and as I mentioned before, there is an inadequate treatment of wastewater.

Just one drop of oil contaminates 1,000 liters of water, so don’t throw cooking oil down the drain.

In general, always try to use biodegradable products that will have less impact on the environment.

The same goes for our sunscreen.

We all use sunscreen for the obvious reasons. But sunscreens contain ingredients that are highly toxic for corals.

Studies show, for instance, corals can become bleached within 72 hours of being exposed to a certain quantity of sunscreen.

So what does that mean?

When a coral becomes bleached that doesn’t mean that it’s dead. But a microalga called zooxanthellae resides within the coral, giving it its color and helping it to eat in a certain manner. When the sea temperature reaches a certain level, or when we have these type of contaminants in the water, the zooxanthellae go away and the coral takes on a white appearance. If and when things return to normal, the zooxanthellae can return and the coral remains alive. In a worst case scenario, however, it never comes back, the coral becomes cover in macroalgae, and then it is susceptible to dying.

In other words, these sunscreens are contributing to coral bleaching. That’s why it’s so important to use biodegradable products. Likewise, we also need to know which components are truly biodegradable, because there are many on the market that claim to be biodegradable but still contain toxins that contribute to coral bleaching.

DON’T EAT SHARK

Don’t consume products that contain shark. Here in the region, it’s common to eat a type of shark called cazón. However, many times the cazón, which is dogfish, actually comes from a different species of shark. It could be bull shark, a hammerhead, anything. We really don’t know what it is we are eating, so it’s best to avoid this type of products whose origin we cannot determine.

It’s also important to note that sharks are apex predators. They help us to maintain the natural balance of an ecosystem such as a barrier reef. So if you remove the sharks, at some point there you provoke an imbalance in the food chain. As a result, a species’ population increasing when it shouldn’t and an imbalance can be created that can eventually to the death of an entire ecosystem.

Ocean plastic
Photo credit Marisol Rueda <flores

USE YOUR VOICE

As a community, we should also demand that local governments improve their treatment of wastewater. Not just for the health of the reef, but for the health of those who swim in the Caribbean Sea as well, for the health of those of us who frequently go swimming in the waters off of Playa del Carmen.

DON’ TOUCH ANYTHING

No matter whether you go snorkeling or diving, never touch anything. Don’t touch the corals, don’t touch the sea turtles. Don’t touch any living being.

I always use the example of sitting at a restaurant and then someone comes in and starts touching your legs, your arms, and your head at random. You’re not going to like it, and neither do the animals.

Take starfish, for example. People love to pull them up out of the water. Starfish live in the sea for a reason. If you take it out of the water you are suffocating it. It only takes a few seconds to kill a starfish.

So respect the local flora and fauna. Don’t mistreat it, and be careful when using fins that you don’t actually kick it. Depending on the species, corals grow from 0.003 to 0.10 centimeters a year.

So just imagine when we see those large coral heads, well they’ve been there for thousands of years. A simple kick and you could be destroying hundreds of years of history.

Playa del Carmen beach
Photo credit: Marisol Rueda Flores

Do we have any reason to have hope?

Yes, there is reason for hope. It can sometimes be difficult to find, especially when dealing with so many problems. At the same time, there are so many people and so many organizations that are working to improve the health of the reef and in general to make the state of Quintana Roo truly sustainable, which is a term we like to throw around a lot but don’t exactly fulfill.

But there’s still hope.

I think that just being able to influence someone through a talk, be it one person or ten people, to convince them to change their habits and no longer use straws or styrofoam, for instance, that they don’t use plastic bags and respect the closed seasons. You can be satisfied with this small change, because in the end that one person is going to tell ten more.

So I think we can slowly change the mentality of people. A lot of it has to do with education. I think that’s where we have to begin. We also need campaigns to promote a sense of identity here.

That’s because the majority of us who live here are from somewhere else, be it another country or another state of the Mexican Republic. But we really need to cultivate and appropriate this identity as a Playense. We’ve chosen to live here, and we’re going to be here for who knows how much longer.

So it’s our responsibility to take care of the place we’ve chosen as our home, because it really is a beautiful paradise. Yoy wake up and you’re just steps away from the Caribbean Sea. It gives you a completely different energy than if you were in a place say like Mexico City.

But, yes, I think there’s reason for hope. I believe in people in that we can achieve change. It’s likely to take a long time and I probably won’t see it in my lifetime, but at least I’ll have the satisfaction of having done something to help protect the environment.

Speaking of helping, if someone wants to volunteer or help out with the Healthy Reefs Initiative, what can they do to support your work?

We don’t have a volunteer program at the Healthy Reefs Initiative. Not because we don’t want to, but because we are really an organization that does a lot with few people. There’s just four of us. A coordinator in Honduras, one in Guatemala, our director in Florida, and myself here in Mexico.

But there are other organizations, such as Flora, Fauna & Cultura which needs volunteers for their program of sea turtle monitoring. Likewise, the Akumal Environmental Center has a great volunteer program that teaches the volunteers to monitor the health of the reef. In fact, we use their data in our reports.

On the other hand, Global Vision International is a company that trains people over a period of several months to monitor the reef, and this data is then used to have more information about the reef and what we can do.

There are also lots of programs for cleaning up the beaches.

I just started an alliance with two other women, Karen Fuentes from Manta Project Mexico, and Tamara Dame of Manatus, which is a dive outfit with an educational focus. The three of us have come together to try and reduce the use of plastic. Currently, we’re working on a proposal and soon we’ll be starting a campaign to do exactly that. We’ll probably be looking for volunteers to help us in the not to distant future.

And if someone wants to contact you?

They can find us on Facebook as Healthy Reefs for Healthy People, which is our name in English. For the campaign to reduce plastic they can find us as Sirenas contra el plastico, and the Kanan Kay Alliance also has a Facebook page.

FEATURE IMAGE — PHOTO CREDIT: MARIO CHOW

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Warren Allan

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