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    A Poor Report Card for the Mesoamerican Reef

    By Keith R | December 22, 2008

    Topics: Marine/Coastal Issues | No Comments »

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    A “report card” on the health of the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR) was released recently, and it was not pretty.  Not the type of report card a student would want to take home to his/her parents.

    The MAR follows the Caribbean coastline of Mexico and Central America for over 1,000 kilometers, and as such is the hemisphere’s longest continuous reef system and one of the world’s largest (reputedly the world’s second largest). It supports nearly 60 species of coral, 350 mollusks, 500 fish species, and among other creatures, Central America’s largest population of manatees.

    In previous posts I’ve looked at the threats to the MAR, and recent efforts (here, here) to address some of them.  And if you need a refresher on why protecting reefs matters, check out my September 2006 post on the subject.

    The “report card” looks at seven core indicators for the 326 sites that make up the MAR.  The pie chart at right summarizes the overall findings: only 6% are in “good” condition (the light green slice), 41% “fair” (yellow slice), 47% “poor” (orange slice) and 6% are in “critical” shape (red slice). None are rated “very good.”

    In other words, over half of the MAR is in bad shape and need of stronger protection.  The 41% in “fair” condition could easily take a turn for the worse if local management actions are not taken to prevent further deterioration.

    Taking a look by country breakdown, we find the five sites in Guatemala in the worst shape: 40% critical, 20% poor, 40% fair, none good.  Belize‘s 140 sites are 5% critical, 53% poor, 39% fair and 3% good.  Mexico‘s 121 sites are 7% critical, 50% poor, 37% fair and 6% good.  Honduras’ 60 sites are 5% critical, 28% poor, 55% fair and 12% good.

    Just a decade ago the MAR was in better shape, better than most reef systems in the Caribbean.  What do the report card’s preparers think are the primary causes of reef deterioration?  Unregulated coastal development and tourism, overfishing, and poor agricultural practices.  They note that some of the biggest shifts have come in key population centers and tourism hot spots.  The report does not call for a freeze on coastal and tourism development, but rather proper environmental management thereof.  As it says

    Tourism — even ecotourism — can result in significant and lasting environmental degradation if undertaken without a sound, legally binding coastal zone management plan that encompasses cumulative effects through an ecologically appropriate zoning scheme and addresses the need for adequate infrastructure (particularly solid waste and sewage).

    The report card was released by the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative, a special project started in 2004 by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System Project (MBRS), the World Bank, the Summit Foundation and Perigee Environmental.  The report card was put together with help from The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Greenreef, Belize Audubon, Friends of Nature, the Toledo Association for Sustainable Tourism and Empowerment (TASTE), the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE), Earthwatch, and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).


    map of the Mesoamerican Reef system (click to enlarge)From the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative:

    First Eco-health Report Card Issued for the Mesoamerican Reef – Most Reefs are in Poor to Fair Condition

    Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative released the first Eco-health Report Card for the Mesoamerican Reef today during the 2008 International Year of the Reef Symposium at the Radisson Fort George. The Report Card presents an easy-to-understand overview of the Mesoamerican Reef’s ecosystem condition and stewardship by providing a straightforward five-point grading system from  ‘very good’ to ‘critical’  for seven reef indicators, combined into a novel Integrated Reef Health Index which synthesizes all the ecological reef data into one “Dow Jones” style index.

    The 2008 MAR Eco-health Report Card is the first comprehensive health assessment of 326 reefs in the Mesoamerican Reef Ecosystem (MAR). The reef data were collected in 2006 through the Nature Conservancy / World Wildlife Fund Rapid Reef Assessment, with the participation of many local and international organizations (including Greenreef, Belize Audubon, Friends of Nature, TASTE, TIDE, Earthwatch, and Wildlife Conservation Society).

    The spectacular Mesoamerican Reef stretches over 1,000 km from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, through the entire Belize Barrier Reef complex, along the coast of Guatemala and out to the Bay Islands of Honduras. This vast reef complex and neighboring seagrass meadows, deep and shallow lagoons, and shady mangrove forests, forms a dynamic mosaic that nurtures the Mesoamerican “hotspot” of biological and cultural diversity.

    Because humans are a fundamental part of the ecosystem, the Report Card also describes the main threats to the ecosystem and evaluates our impact and management efforts through the newly developed Coastal Development and Tourism Development Indices. Environmental stewardship and management are further evaluated through three additional socioeconomic and performance indicators.

    This first Report Card (2008) shows the overall picture of a reef in danger, in need of immediate protection. A few decades ago the Mesoamerican reef was considered to be in better condition than most other reefs of the Caribbean —but this distinction is now uncertain. Many of the reef health indicators (particularly for fish abundances) are now in worse condition than the Caribbean average and threats like coastal development and tourism are rapidly accelerating.

    “While the picture could certainly be worse, the report card signals the urgency for stronger actions to protect our reefs, “said Dr. Melanie McField of the Smithsonian Institution, and Coordinator of the Healthy Reefs Initiative. “With so many reefs in fair to poor condition, their condition could easily turn in either direction (for better or worse) depending on our current management actions. We need to do the right thing for the reefs and for the people who depend on those reefs to sustain their livelihoods”.

    Future Report Cards will be produced every other year through the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative.  The full Report card can be accessed on the Healthy Reef’s website at

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