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WRI Helps Launch First Eco-Audit of Mesoamerican Reef

This week, two of my colleagues, Ben Kushner and Lauretta Burke, travelled to Mexico and Belize, respectively, for the launch of a new multinational evaluation of reef management by governments, NGOs, and the private sector. The launch events took place in Belize City, Belize; Cancun, Mexico; Guatemala City, Guatemala; and Tegucigalpa, Honduras; and were the result of nine months of collaboration to develop indicators and gather data for this first-ever eco-audit of the Mesoamerican Reef.

The Mesoamerican Reef, the largest reef in the Atlantic Ocean, is home to over 500 species of fish and harkens back over 225 million years. The research included input from more than 40 organizations and 100 people. WRI provided technical assistance to the Healthy Reefs Initiative and local partners. At the launch event in Belize, Dr. Melanie McField, director of the Healthy Reefs Initiative, captured the essence of the new analysis: “The purpose of the eco-audit is really to answer the simple question, are we doing all we can to help the reef?”

“Fair” Management

Unfortunately, the study clearly indicates that the reefs in the region are not being managed very well and more needs to be done to protect the region’s fragile reef system. Overall, across the region, the four countries scored 2.7 (out of 5), which falls into the “Fair” category. Belize was ranked the highest, followed by Honduras and Mexico, and then Guatemala.

As Ben noted, “Our findings show that there’s only been a moderate effort to implement the management recommendations to stem the decline of the Mesoamerican reef.”

The main threats to reefs in the region include overfishing and run-off from land—both of which have gone largely unchecked. And, according to the researchers, if the government and private sector do not increase efforts to improve coastal management and reduce pressure on the reef, it is likely that the Western Hemisphere’s longest barrier reef will continue to deteriorate, and critical ecosystem services such as fish habitat may be lost. This, in turn, could have devastating consequences for the region, which relies heavily on marine resources to sustain tourism and fishing industries. (You can learn more about the threats to coral reefs in WRI’s report, Reefs at Risk Revisited.)

At the Belize event, Lauretta reflected, “The results show that overall the region is not achieving adequate management results. We hope that this analysis will help point out the gaps and what areas need the most attention.”

A Call to Action

The Eco-Audit highlights the urgency of addressing a range of deficiencies, such as by protecting key reef grazers like parrotfish that clean the reef, and improving and enforcing coastal zone planning regulations.

This analysis reveals that NGOs and governments have made good progress – for example by establishing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and some restrictions on fishing, but also that there’s a long way to go to ensure that reefs will be protected into the future – including adopting and adhering to coastal zone plans, improving sewage treatment, and implementing certification for hotels, marine recreation providers and the seafood industry.

As Ben reported after the Mexico launch, “People here are acutely aware of the problems associated with reefs, but it is difficult to build the political will and funding to significantly improve reef management.” According to Dr. McField, the Healthy Reef Initiative aims to come back every two years to check on the quality of the reef management. And, it’s possible that eco-audits could be expanded to more countries in the years ahead.

Hopefully, this project will help lead to better management of the Mesoamerican reef and inspire people to take better care of other reefs, as well.

For a summary of the Mesoamerican Eco-Audit, including an overview of each indicator and data collection methods, go to: www.healthyreefs.org and www.wri.org/reefs.

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