What draws millions of international tourists to the Riviera Maya each year? The weather, the people, the food, yes to all of those, but it’s the beaches, the aquamarine water and the coral reefs that makes this spectacular natural attraction possible. The third article in our series “Can Mass Tourism be Sustainable?” explores what Mexico is doing and not doing, to ensure the continued sustainability of these coral reef ecosystems. Find out more in: the “Riviera Maya: Marine Protected Areas.”

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The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System that stretches for 1000 kilometers from Isla Contoy at the northern tip of the Yucatan, south to the Bay Islands of Honduras is the world’s second longest barrier reef. To protect this natural wonder the Caribbean countries that share the reef have created marine parks including Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize and Cayos Cochinos Marine Park in Honduras, but it’s what Mexico is doing that is our focus.


Mexico’s Marine Parks

Since nearly half of this vast system of coral reefs, atolls, mangrove forests and lagoons lies along the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico has created a series of protected areas. Cozumel Island just east of Playa del Carmen, has been a hugely popular, international scuba diving destination for many years, a fact recognized by the government when it created Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park in 1996. Palancar Reef is one of the world’s most famous dive sites, but Cozumel’s reefs are now rivaled by a unique, nearby, artificial reef created by the English sculptor Jason de Caires Taylor.


Over 500 life sized figures live on the sea floor at MUSA, the Museo Subacuatico de Arte and are visited by divers from Cancun, Isla Mujeres and Cozumel. The figures vividly demonstrate the interaction between art and environment while forming a complex reef structure colonized by marine life.


“Where the Sky is Born”

Further south are the reefs of Banco Chinchorro and Xcalak and near the town of Tulum, the extraordinary Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

sian-ka-an biosphere marine protected area, mexico riviera maya, mexico, marine life sanctuarySian Ka’an means “where the sky is born” in the Mayan language and aptly describes this vast, flat expanse of wetlands, lagoons, mangroves, fringing reefs and tropical forests that is home to an extraordinary biodiversity.

318 species of butterflies have been identified; 345 species of birds including roseate spoonbills, belted kingfish, frigate birds, parrots, egrets, the jabiru stork and blue herons fly over its wetlands.


sian kaan jaguar sian ka'an village, biosphere marine protected area riviera maya protected park mexico yucatanJaguars, pumas, tapirs, and spider monkeys are some of the endangered species that wander Sian Ka’an’s forests. While manatees, loggerhead, green and hawksbill turtles lay their eggs on the reserve’s protected beaches.

Sian Ka’an was established in 1986 and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site the following year. Today nearly 5000 people continue to live within the park’s boundaries, sustainably harvesting lobster or providing tourists with “catch and release” sport fishing.

In the future, will this livelihood and the very viability of Sian Ka’an be threatened by the rapidly expanding tourism mecca of nearby Tulum and the uncertainty of global warming and sea level rise? We try to address these issues in: Can Mass Tourism be Sustainable? Part 2, Riviera Maya: Geology and Pollution. Plus we will discuss more on Tulum in an upcoming article.


The Mexican Caribbean Biosphere Reserve

Changing everything was the recent announcement by the Mexican government to create the country’s largest natural protected area. The Mexican Caribbean Biosphere Reserve will protect more than 5.7 million hectares, virtually the entire Caribbean coast of the state of Quintana Roo from Isla Mujeres and Cozumel to Tulum, Bacalar and south to the border with Belize. President Enrique Pena Nieto will make the formal announcement of the reserve’s creation at COP13, the Global Biodiversity Summit now being held in Cancun.

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The marine portion of the reserve will protect over 5.7 million hectares an area that includes 500 species of fish and 86 varieties of coral reef.

“The Mexican Caribbean is characterized by diverse habitats and ecosystems,” reads a government statement. “On land there are different kinds of tropical rainforests. Closer to the coast there are sand dunes, lagoons, floodplains and mangrove swamps. At sea, seagrass meadows and coral reef are predominant.”

Administration of the reserve will be under Conanp, (the Natural Protected Areas Commission) while the Mexican Navy will now patrol and provide protection for the entire Mexican portion of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. The environment secretary has indicated that the reserve’s new status will include a ban on oil exploration and limits on cruise and cargo ship traffic. Regarding limits on commercial fishing, the details remain to be announced.

One interesting possibility for funding all of this is Germany, which has offered US10$ million to help. Thank god for all those German tourists that love to bronze themselves on the beaches of the Riviera Maya. Let’s hope they use ecofriendly sunscreen lotions.


A Report Card On the Health of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef

logo healthy reefs for healthy people research on coral reef ecosystems, pollution, fish stocks, invasive species, lionfish, marine life,Healthy Reefs for Healthy People is an international effort to monitor the condition of the Meso-American Barrier Reef and to aid in ensuring it’s long term viability. For ten years they have conducted over 800 field surveys in the four countries sharing the reef. The results of this research is then published annually, providing a means of comparison from year to year, for example, seasonal ocean temperatures are measured and the corresponding threat of coral bleaching events evaluated.

The health of fish stocks; the regeneration of Diadema Sea Urchins and the harmful effects of macroalgae proliferation on coral reefs are measured and management interventions are suggested. Each of the four countries sharing the reef are evaluated separately.

As we might expect the 2018 report gives the best shores to marine areas that have been protected the longest, such as the reefs off Cozumel Island and Roatan in Honduras. Also marine areas that are more isolated such as Banco Chinchorro off Mexico’s southern Caribbean coast. Other areas like Guatemala’s coast is ranked poor or critical because of the highly polluted out flow from the Motagua River that carries sewage and waste from Guatemala City. Possibly as a result of monitors like Healthy Reefs, Guatemala has announced a major initiative to clean up its garbage flowing into the Caribbean. Also initiated is a blame game between Guatemala and Honduras as to who is polluting more. Recently a floating island of waste was spotted in the Gulf of Honduras, dubbed “the floating island of Roatan” it mimics, on a smaller scale, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, floating in the north Pacific Ocean.

Healthy Reefs gave Mexico’s share of the reef a decidedly mixed report, of 134 sites monitored: only 1% was in very good condition; 11% were good; 28% were fair; but 38% was in poor condition and 22% was in critical condition. Mexico’s reefs received an overall score of 2.8 out of 5 and the good news is that over the last ten years,  three out of four indicators have improved including coral cover and fish biomass. The one “poor” indicator was for an increase of fleshy microalgae that nearly doubled in the last decade, a clear indication of more pollution flowing onto the coral reefs from the growing population living along the coast.


Much Needed Good News!

riviera maya, mexico, yucatan, marine life, coral reef kcan mass tourism be sustainable, scuba diving destinationIn our series Can Mass Tourism be Sustainable we have reported on some pretty disappointing issues, such as uncontrolled development and lack of infrastructure planning. Consequently, it was with pleasure that I was able to report on the creation of Mexico’s new Marine Protected Areas.

Our next article takes us back to Akumal, “the place of the turtles” where the question of who should enjoy the financial benefits of turtle tourism has been hotly debated, resulting in “Akumal’s Turtle Wars.”

This is a very important issue that reverberates in similar situations of mass tourism around the world. Can we learn from Akumal’s experiences?

By Robert Frerck, Blue Ocean Network


See These Related Stories on Sustainable Tourism:

Can Mass Tourism be Sustainable? Riviera Maya Part 1, Beginnings
World’s Largest Underwater Cave gives up Amazing Secrets!
Nov. 29 – Dec. 1: Sustainable Ocean Summit
Update: New Marine Protected Areas Created in Brazil:
International Year of Sustainable Tourism
Sustainable Tourism in Palau
UN Ocean Conference dives into “Life Below Water” with Sustainable Development Goal #14
Marine Protected Areas: Good News, Bad News


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