They feed millions of people worldwide, buffer harbors and shorelines from storm waves, restock fisheries by sheltering juvenile fish, and attract snorkeling and SCUBA-diving tourists to coastal regions.
The coral reefs are also a key source of income: tourism is the major employer in the coastal zone around the Mesoamerican Reef and Caribbean islands .
According to experts, tourism employs a third of working adults in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, centered around Cancun, and contributes nearly a quarter of overall GDP in Belize.
The Caribbean’s Mesoamerican Reef is a wildlife haven threatened by tourism and overfishing. Is the second largest barrier reef in the world, stretching 600 miles (965 km). Only the Great Barrier Reef surpasses it.
The reef’s northernmost point aligns with Cancún in Mexico. From there it stretches south-east alongside the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.
Visitors flock to its sandy-white beaches and warm seas to snorkel and scuba dive. The Mesoamerican Reef supports millions of people along the neighbouring coasts.
But the tourism industry, combined with ecological pressures like overfishing and pollution, are taking their toll on the reef and the many local fishing communities.
From massive hotel development through the agriculture industry, humans are destroying the second largest barrier reef in the world: the Mesoamerican Reef.
Although global climate change and its effects on reefs via warming and acidification of coastal waters have made recent headlines, local human activities may destroy certain ecosystems before climate change has a chance to do it.
The harmful effects of mining, agriculture, commercial development, and fishing in coastal regions have already damaged more than two-thirds of reefs across the Caribbean, in addition to worsening the negative effects of climate change.
A recent evaluation by the Healthy Reefs Initiative (HRI, http://www.healthyreefs.org) of the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR), which runs continuously for over 1,000 km, from north of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula south to Honduras, highlights the combination of locally-grown threats to this iconic ecosystem.
The Mesoamerican Reef ecosystem encompasses barrier, fringe, patch, and atoll coral reefs, as well as adjacent mangroves, lagoons, and seagrass beds and the amazing variety of plant and animal species living within these different formations.
To attempt to measure and monitor the health of an ecosystem as complex as a coral reef, the HRI publishes a Report Card for the Mesoamerican Reef using key indicators of reef health.
For the 2014 Report Card, HRI and partners monitored 193 sites across the reef. HRI has developed a single index, their Simplified Integrated Reef Health Index (SIRHI), from a combination of four of the indicators – live coral cover, fleshy macroalgae cover, biomass (the number and size) of herbivorous (vegetarian) fish, and biomass of commercially valuable fish – that can be easily compared among sites and over time.
Ironically, some of the worst threats to coral reefs are caused by human activities on land. The conversion of natural vegetation to agriculture or commercial development, together with modern agricultural methods and waste disposal, have jeopardized the ability of watersheds in the western Caribbean to maintain water quality.
Water full of sediment, industrial pollutants, agricultural chemicals, and high concentrations of nutrients that runs into the sea changes the chemistry of the reef environment, making reef ecosystems more susceptible to diseases that kill corals and other organisms.
Caribbean reefs confronting these modern-day disturbances also suffer from damaged fish communities caused by a history of overfishing and predation from an aggressive invasive species as the Lionfish.
Overfishing, which affects over 60% of Caribbean reefs, not only reduces fish populations but also worsens the effects of pollution and sedimentation.
Gustavo Carrasquel | ANCA24