Reefs in Cozumel contaminated with parasites
Dr. Laura Georgina Calva Benítez, the researcher at the UAM, led the presentation before Pedro Joaquín Delbouis, municipal president, personnel of the Marine Park, the Naval Sector, Port Captaincy, environmentalists, and researchers, regarding a study on the presence of nutrients in relation to macroalgae indicators of pollution, which reported "unfortunately were found levels above permissible limits especially orthophosphate and ammonium.
She confirmed that in addition to the indicator macroalgae, they noted "the presence of different species of cyanophytes that are parasitizing and competing with corals, with sponges in addition to a tunicate that in October and November 2018 were only parasitizing or competing with sponges, but unfortunately this week's dives left evidence that it is affecting part of corals.
She believes that the presence of sargassum and its degradation is also favoring the release of nutrients that are reaching the reefs and increases the problem.
The samples they take are related to orthophosphate, ammonium, nitrites, and nitrates, pointing out that to the north of the island, where Laguna Ciega is located, they set "a point with very high levels, in addition to levels of anoxia that correspond to oxygen, and that there are reefs such as Tormentos and Chankanaab that registered high levels of nutrients, which is indicating that there is a contribution from part of the land.
On the management of sewage, she stressed that "so far we do not know what is the efficiency of the treatment plant that has Cozumel, and I can not say categorically (because only one point is shown) if this treatment plant reverses a very strong problem, because it would be necessary to do at least five to six sampling stations to give an assertion of that magnitude.
Before the question, of the state of health of the reefs of Cozumel with all the factors described by her and the "white syndrome", she exposed that "from October to November until two days ago, the reef is more damaged, apart is a multifactorial problem and not only we have a problem that can be some bacteria, here is joining the part of cyanophytes, tunicates, then it is already becoming a more important problem that we have to take in a very serious way, by the speed at which these changes are taking place".
It is urgent to treat it and based on testimonies gathered from people dedicated to diving, she highlighted that the changes have been accelerated from January to date, in fact she says that the amount of fish observed last year until now in some reefs have already been reduced, and in a personal experience she heard that some foreign and oriental tourists almost claimed local divers who had not seen fish as they had been promised when they bought the excursion.
She explained that the issue of caring for the reefs "has to be a priority because Cozumel is not only important because it is part of the Mesoamerican reef, but also has an economic problem, social, many people depend on tourism and if this is neglected, it will have social repercussions.
She began by saying that the research she presented was financed by the Federal PROCODES program, as well as the Iztapalapa UAM, although she considers it "a small investigation, indicating that the ideal would be to make samples in times of dry, rainy, and 'nortes', and include coliform bacteria, fecal, streptococcus, and the part of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that are generated, because here we have many two-stroke motor vehicles, four-stroke, ferry, cruise ships, there are many types of boats that generate polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and these are very important because they can have toxic effects, mutagenic, not only for organisms but also for man.
To think of Cozumel is to visualize its coral reefs. This marine ecosystem is the main economic support of the island, one of the most populated in Mexico, since it is visited by almost two million people a year. Preserving it is essential, and taking action to keep it in good health is essential, as it also makes 65 percent of the islanders less vulnerable to the impact of a hurricane.
The work to raise awareness among the population and service providers is gaining strength by involving new generations through workshops with field activities, ranging from restoring mangroves, another ecosystem that serves as a refuge for the fish that inhabit the reefs, to explaining to them the importance of maintaining good environmental practices at home, by the Cozumel Parks and Museum Foundation.
The main threats it faces are overexploitation of tourism, which cannot be 100 percent controlled due to staff shortages; bad practices in marine recreational activities; the spread of the white syndrome in 40 percent of the 35 linear kilometers it covers; and the accumulation of seaweed on some of its beaches.
Cozumel's reefs are part of the Mesoamerican Reef System (MAR), they were among the best conserved, according to a study by the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative, published in 2018.
And so they could have remained, had it not been for the lethal epizootic of the white syndrome that reached them in October last year, after it was discovered three months earlier in Puerto Morelos.
Brenda Hernández Hernández, deputy director of the Cozumel Reefs National Park, reported that in the last monitoring they detected that between 35 and 40 percent of coral reefs are affected by the white syndrome.
"We can talk about reefs more damaged than others, the most affected is Paradise Reef, which is right where the park begins, speaking from north to south on the west coast".
One of the most damaged coral colonies on Colombia's reef is the column reef, of which they were unaware that it was ill, but a few weeks ago they reported the death of the entire colony.
It is characteristic because apart from being the most beautiful, they were very restricted places in the park, that is to say, there were not many visits. It is an area of about 16 square meters of this species.
The overloading of tourists is one of the main threats recognized by the deputy director of the marine park because although it has load limit studies, the operation of unauthorized boats causes the number of swimmers to be exceeded.
Last year, park authorities gave 349,500 bracelets to authorized service providers so that they could give them to the tourists they bring to the park, that is, for an average of 957 swimmers a day. However, the Regional Directorate of the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) reported that it has an average of 1,500 visits per day and that this figure could be an underestimate.
"There are service providers that are not authorized by the Park, we can no longer authorize because the carrying capacity does not allow it," explained Hernandez Hernandez.
The established number is 240 vessels but today there are 263 operating since when it was established the load limit was less than those already authorized and the law is not retroactive.
The bad practices of tourists when diving or snorkeling is another of the actions that put at risk the coral reef, such as the use of sunscreens that contain harmful substances, lifting the sediment from the sea floor when fluttering, touching the corals, breaking them, or feeding the fauna that inhabits them, among others.
At the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018, a study of the valuation of ecosystem services for the Ecovalor program was carried out, which revealed, among other things, that if the arrecifal ecosystem is degraded, the annual number of tourists is expected to decrease by 12 percent a year, and considering the current economic outflow, there could be a loss of 1.51 billion pesos per year in the local economy (about 79,524,150 US dollars).
The above data was obtained considering the rates of diving and snorkeling by type of visitor reported in the study (tourists 78% and hikers 58%), at least 1.8 million people a year are considered direct users of the reef, who are willing to pay three thousand 52 pesos for recreational services in a well-preserved reef (about 160 US dollars).
"Within the National Park is 85 percent of the reefs most visited by tourism and is the main activity on the island, we are not represented in other types of activities. It is what sustains the economic part of the island," said the federal official.
The Cozumel Reefs National Park Directorate employs a total of 11 people, including administrative staff and park rangers, but in times of high tourist influx, all go to the sea to ensure that there are not too many swimmers and pirate boats.
"(The current conditions of the Park) I see them quite limited, with many complications and we do not need more cuts, but more support, both in human resources and monetary resources. Limited to goals and challenges.
This year the budget assigned to that address was 400,000 pesos (about 21,070 US dollars), almost half of what was in 2018, even though it generates revenues for the federal government of more than 12 million pesos annually (around 632,130 US dollars), but are channeled to the Treasury and through that instance are distributed to other environmental work throughout the country.
"This year they reduced the budget by half, much of that budget goes on gasoline and maintenance of boats," said the deputy director of the Park.
Resources were obtained from the Regional Program for the Protection and Restoration of Ecosystems and Species at Risk (Prorest), which will address part of the problem of the white syndrome, through organizations that complied with the guidelines.
With external funds, they are going to provide a consultancy to analyze water quality, since this is closely related to the white syndrome.
With the support of UNAM researchers from the Puerto Morelos Unit, they carry out reef monitoring, in addition to applying treatments with the help of volunteers and tour operators, who help with their boats to make the tours.
Soon they will implement a badge for tourism businesses and for authorized boats, a sticker, and a flag so that tourists know that they are hiring the services that have the operating permits in order, also will upload to a digital platform the list of boats and companies.
For your information
Cozumel has two federal Protected Natural Areas: Cozumel Reefs National Park, located to the south of the island, which covers 11,987.87 hectares, mainly marine, and the Flora and Fauna Island Protection Area, in the northern region, with an extension of 37,829.17 hectares.
It is the third largest island in Mexico and the second most populated nationwide, with more than 95,000 inhabitants, according to Coespo projections.