Pressure on Mesoamerican reef is not letting up


Back in June 1997, the presidents of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras met in Tulum, Mexico to sign an agreement aimed at preserving the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, a 450-mile (720-km) treasure of Caribbean marine life.

The reef, the world’s second largest, stretches from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to the Bay Islands of Honduras and provides billions of dollars annually in tourism and fishing income for the region. With overfishing, pollution, coastal development and other pressures affecting the reef, the presidents issued the so-called Tulum Declaration, pledging to protect the reef and its supporting ecosystem of coastal wetlands, lagoons and mangrove swamps.

Now, ten years later, the record of the four countries in reaching that goal has been spotty at best, experts say, with none of the nations apart from Mexico doing much to enforce relevant environmental regulations.

The Tulum Declaration has inspired dozens of projects by such green groups as Conservation International, WWF and The Nature Conservancy and millions of dollars in annual environmental investment by the World Bank and other international donors.

But the agreement’s promise remains unfulfilled, with many of the reef’s 60 species of coral and 500 species of fish under siege. Due to scant law enforcement, banana, sugarcane and citrus plantations continue to dump tons of toxic pesticides, fungicides and herbicides into inland watersheds. The chemicals then wash out to the reef, where they harm coral health and reproduction. Meanwhile, nutrients from sewage that cities and resorts discharge onto the reef spawn blue-green algal blooms that suffocate marine life and edge out healthier, coral-building algae.

And overfishing by bottom trawlers and spear fishermen not only affects commercially important lobster, conch and finfish, it also excessively culls herbivores such as parrot fish, which play a crucial environmental function by trimming back the algae. Says Melanie McField, a marine biologist for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington: “When I started working on the reef 15 years ago, there was about 30% living coral on the reef bottom, twice what it is today.”

Critics acknowledge lax enforcement of fishing and pollution regulations are only part of the story. Global warming has dealt the reef some of the worst blows, including higher sea temperatures and coral bleaching. But several non-governmental groups, including WWF and The Nature Conservancy, are trying to ease local pressures—for instance, by pushing for the creation of marine protected areas in which coastal development would be regulated.

Spawning areas closed

They also have identified over two dozen areas of significant spawning and closed them to fishing. And they have trained hundreds of fishermen to use more environmentally friendly fishing gear, and have instructed them in scuba diving and other activities they can undertake with tourists to make money during the seasons when fishing is not allowed.

Work also is being done to reduce the dumping of agricultural and industrial waste, especially in the areas of greatest reef contamination: southern Belize, the Guatemalan Caribbean and northern Honduras.

“Inappropriate production practices and a lack of wastewater treatment have led to damaging effluents pouring out through Chetumal Bay and the Gulf of Honduras and onto the reef,” says Sylvia Marín, WWF’s representative for the Central America region. “We’ve tried to address that not by imposing rules, but by working with big agro-exporters and beverage manufacturers to establish management practices that are better for the environment and more efficient and productive.”

In June, for example, WWF reached an agreement with two major Honduran palm-oil producers, Palmas de San Alejo and AGROTOR, to reduce their use of chemical pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers and to better control wastewater. Similar improvements have been negotiated with sugarcane, citrus, banana and pineapple exporters, including such companies as Dole and Chiquita Brands International.

Meanwhile, companies are conducting pilot projects on a total of 250,000 acres (100,000 has) in the four-country region to test agricultural techniques aimed at limiting sedimentation from upland watersheds and toxic discharges, WWF says. The environmental group claims such efforts have reduced the flow of contaminants to the reef by at least 5%.

For its part, Conservation International has been working with regional hotels, developers and cruise lines to reduce waste discharges, especially around the Riviera Maya of Mexico and southern Belize. In a special victory, the conservation group got cruise lines to commit to refrain from discharging wastewater within four miles of the reef.

Capacity-building needed

But even optimists say such efforts will not halt the reef’s long-term decline if regional governments fail to draft—and enforce—strict land use, development and waste-treatment rules. Indeed, apart from Mexico, none of the signatories to the reef-protection accord seems to have the capacity to prepare environmental-impact assessments for agricultural or tourism development and monitor compliance, according to experts. Says Alejandro Arrivillaga, a marine-conservation specialist with The Nature Conservancy: “Though contaminants from half of Guatemala City end up on the reef, you don’t have sanitary inspectors measuring nutrient and E. coli levels.”

Part of the problem is the lack of baseline information that could be brought to authorities to argue for strict measures. Anecdotal information from fishermen suggests fish stocks have declined over 60% around the reef in the last two decades, for example. But there is no hard scientific data to test this contention.

Though WWF, The Nature Conservancy and the University of Miami are collaborating on a study of 400 different reef sites, there have been no studies of the whole reef up to the present that would indicate the full scale of the damage. Says Marín: “We don’t have enough data yet to know precisely what has been harmed. That is obviously important in determining policy.”

- Steve Ambrus

Alejandro Arrivillaga
Marine Conservation Specialist
The Nature Conservancy
Guatemala City, Guatemala
Tel: +(502) 2367-0480
Sylvia Marín
Regional Representative for Central America
San José, Costa Rica
Tel: +(506) 234-8434
Melanie McField
Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative
Smithsonian Institution
Belize City, Belize
Tel: +(501) 223-7680