Integrating Policies on Land Use Changes and Coastal Zone Management to Deliver Food Security and Environmental Conservation
Principal Investigator: Professor Susan Baker, Cardiff University
4 Treatments to Improve the Health of the Mesoamerican Reef
Recent scientific reports have shown 56% of the coral area of the world’s second longest barrier reef to be in “poor” or “critical” condition along its Mexican coastline1. Having been heavily impacted by Hurricane Wilma in 2006, coral recovery on the Mesoamerican Reef is being limited by several pressures, including that of declining regional water quality. A ‘fleshy’ macroalgae, that colonizes hard substrate quickly in low quality water, is overgrowing patches of previously healthy reef, preventing corals growing in those areas. If the massive natural structure were human, it would be on its way to the emergency room and close to needing life support. Yet, while its immediate prognosis is not good, now is not the time to be writing an obituary for the Mesoamerican Reef.
(Image: The Mesoamerican Reef near Chetumal, Humberto Bahena Basave, CONABIO)
Our team of British Academy-funded scientists, from Mexico, the UK, and Sweden, is one group attempting to arrest the reef’s decline in health before it is too late. Over the course of a 15-month project, we are in the process of diagnosing, and recommending treatment for a major cause of the symptoms the reef is currently displaying. Titled Land2Coast, our team’s research project is focused on the extent to which land-use on the adjacent Yucatan Peninsula might be to blame for the low water quality that is causing the reef to suffer1.
When treating humans for ill health, our first step is to ask the patient what might be the reason for their reduced health. We are taking exactly the same approach with the Mesoamerican Reef. Obviously we can’t speak to the tiny organisms that make up the reef, but we can speak to those who know the history of the reef, just as a hospital patient would know their own medical history. The first stage in our investigations has been to organise workshops in which we have canvassed local environmental experts, like national park managers, over which land-use issues might be harming the region’s reef. Their local knowledge is key to the success of our research and in the workshops they identified 4 primary treatments for the Mesoamerican Reef’s maladies2:
1. Reduce water contamination - According to the local experts, some who worked for not-for-profits dealing with water quality, only 30-35% of wastewater produced along Mexico’s Caribbean coast is treated before it enters the ocean. The population of the state of Quintana Roo (where the research project is based) has increased from under 100,000 in 1970 to over 1.5 million in 2017, as people have migrated there to work in the rapidly growing tourism industry. As land-use has changed to urban usage, cities like Cancun and Playa del Carmen have become considerable polluters.
2. Improve environmental legislation and governance - Those working in national park management identified that they did not always have the finances and power to enforce land-use legislation designed to improve local water quality. Others were critical that existing legislation was also too “soft” on polluters, such as developers who have built hotels and residential projects without adequate water treatment systems.
3. Halt deforestation - Environmental professionals highlighted how legal loopholes are being used to clear otherwise protected mangrove forests for tourism development. Coastal mangroves are an essential buffer between the land and ocean, often playing a role in filtering pollutants, so their removal can result in a greater volume of pollutants reaching the reef.
4. Initiate better solid waste management - Beyond the largest cities, workshop attendees identified that there was little solid waste management in newly urbanized areas. The Yucatan Peninsula has a unique limestone geology, and sinkholes (or ‘cenotes’) lead to underground rivers that eventually flow out directly under the Mesoamerican Reef (as opposed to traditional rivers, which discharge at the coastline, relatively well removed from offshore coral reefs). Solid waste is apparently being dumped straight into the sinkholes, polluting the underground rivers and then the reef.
If these ‘treatments’ are not applied, the future existence of the Mesoamerican Reef, especially in Mexico, will be brought into question. Already under pressure from the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification, it is unlikely the reef will be resilient to the waterborne illnesses caused by unsustainable changes to land-use. Our research team will be working further with the local experts who attended the workshop, to find ways in which their suggested treatments can be realised. You can follow our progress on this blog or on our project website.
The latest 5-year report from environmental not-for-profit, Healthy Reefs for Healthy People, on the health of the world’s second longest barrier reef.
The first report published by the project featured in this blog post, which includes original maps of the impacts of land-use change on the marine environment around the Yucatan Peninsula.
Where land meets the ocean, disturbance to cross-boundary environmental processes can have considerable impacts either side of this boundary. Quintana Roo, Mexico, where our project is focussed, is no exception. Accelerating urban and tourism development, as well as agricultural and forestry practices, are influencing the quality of water infiltrating porous limestone on its path to the region’s many underwater rivers. This polluted water flows directly into coastal mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, and coral reefs, extensively degrading these habitats in many localities. With no enforcement or reform of land use and water policy, these habitats will not recover. Still healthy ones will likely also degrade. In a region where people have a close relationship to seafood, and where close to 35% of the rapidly growing population rely on marine tourism for their livelihoods, the social and ecological consequences of marine degradation are profound.
We are researching the extent to which it is possible to incorporate sea- and land-borne impacts in coastal zone management by examining ways to reconcile land-use policies, land-use change, coastal zone food security, and marine conservation. Our goal is to propose ways in which land use policy and coastal zone management can be integrated to improve the livelihoods of the local population in Quintana Roo. Local policy-makers will be able to reference our proposals in taking action to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially those: (i) promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth; (ii) ensuring sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems; and (iii) conserving and sustainably using the oceans.
To this end, we have already held two workshops in the settlements of Tulum and Bacalar in Quintana Roo, bringing together over 35 stakeholders working in the seaward tourism, marine conservation, and seafood sectors, in addition to stakeholders from the agriculture and forestry sectors. Attendees also included local government officials overseeing municipalities that had lengthy coastlines and extensive forested areas. Each workshop produced very positive results, with participants engaging enthusiastically with both the subject of our project and the workshop programme. Over a series of facilitated exercises and open discussions they listed key concerns in relation to their local environment and discussed challenges faced in promoting socioeconomic, and cultural sustainability. These included increased solid waste in the towns and cities of Cancun, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Bacalar, and Chetumal, alongside habitat removal of mangrove forests, coastal dunes and seagrass as part of hotel construction along the beaches of the Riviera Maya. Yet, overwhelmingly, the conversation was taken up by the topic of water, and the fact that only 30% of regional effluent goes through secondary treatment before it enters the watershed and the ocean. Water governance is clearly going to be a central consideration of our project.
Our research team comprises social, environmental, and ecological researchers, as well as professionals working in civil society organisations, from Mexico, the UK, and Sweden. We held our first planning meeting in Tulum, Quintana Roo in March 2017. Over the next year, we will be conducting interviews, workshops, and household surveys with officials and institutional leaders across Quintana Roo, but also with users of the land (e.g., farmers, forestry workers) and sea (e.g., fishers, SCUBA dive professionals), looking at how policies are shaped, and livelihoods and governance systems connected. We will also be referencing local ecological records and conducting our own monitoring of some coastal habitats. Outputs from the project will include the development of a framework to support improved communication between and integration of different sectors and actors in the decision-making process regarding land use and coastal zone management.