Mesoamerican Reef

Collaborating to Conserve Cozumel’s Natural Treasures

Cruise ship in Cozumel.

Cozumel receives over 1,000 cruise ships per year.

The island of Cozumel has no shortage of attractions. About 20 miles from the northeastern coastline of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, Cozumel is surrounded by coral reefs, rimmed by ivory beaches, and covered with forests and wetlands that are home to endemic species. The problem is that Cozumel is visited by more than five million tourists per year who, together with the tens of thousands of Mexicans who have moved to the island to work in tourism, place a significant burden on its ecosystems.

Once a little-known destination for skin divers and independent travelers, Cozumel is now one of the Caribbean’s top cruise ports with 1,000 cruise ships and three and half million passengers per year. An additional 250,000 visitors stay at the island’s 47 hotels each year, many of them divers; and thousands of day visitors take the ferry over from Playa del Carmen on the nearby mainland. An estimated 1,500 to 1,800 divers and snorkelers swim daily in the waters of Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park.

The Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI) works to mitigate tourism’s impact on Cozumel’s reefs, when initial meetings resulted in the formation of the Grupo Intersectorial Isla Cozumel (GI) – a group of volunteers from the tourism industry, local government, and the community that is now a MARTI member. GI works with the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) to promote the adoption of good practices by the island’s marine recreation service companies, and more recently, to raise awareness about water conservation issues. In collaboration with the municipality, CORAL and GI have created an exhibit to promote a “culture of water” on a town plaza.

GI also promotes the separation of trash for recycling by tourism businesses, and educates visitors and locals alike about the importance of protecting the reef. It has trained 1,800 students from five schools on water conservation, with the goal of training 2,800 students, or 78% of the island total. The group participates in an effort coordinated by Sustainable Travel International (STI) to help Cozumel become a sustainable destination, which prioritizes getting a seal of quality and sustainability for tourism operators, highlighting Cozumel’s cultural, natural, and historical heritage, and developing a water conservation program. These priorities have been integrated into the island’s 10-year strategic development plan.

Protecting the Island

Cozumel beach

Amigos de Sian Ka’an helped to create two new protected areas on Cozumel Island.

Cozumel Reefs National Park comprises 12,000 hectares (approximate 35 square miles) of coastal and marine ecosystems around the island’s southern end. Thanks to a concerted effort by Amigos de Sian Ka’an (ASK), protection was extended to cover most of the island’s marine ecosystems through the creation of two new protected areas, one state and one federal. As a result, about half of the island and 80% of its coastal waters are under legal protection.

Though it can take years for the creation of a protected area to have a significant impact on wildlife conservation, especially when enforcement poses a challenge, the new reserves are helping fend off potential transgressions, such as a proposed wind farm, while offering cleaner energy, would have damaged the island’s forest and underground river system.

Confronting an Invader

Lionfish on a coral reef

Lionfish on a coral reef. Credit: Blue Ventures.

In addition to GI’s collaboration with the park to promote reef-friendly practices by the island’s marine recreation operators, they are also fighting the lionfish – an exotic invader from the South Pacific that poses a major threat to local marine life. GI has organized events to convince locals to eat lionfish, produced a play seen by 6,000 students, and published a booklet of lionfish recipes by some of the region’s best chefs.

For GI president Javier Pizaña, this was paramount. “People learned to eat them and not be afraid, fishers saw a good economic opportunity, and restaurants featured it as a special dish on their menus. In addition, everyone feels they are helping take care of the reef.”

There wasn’t a restaurant in Cozumel that served lionfish before the group began promoting it, and now more than a dozen restaurants have lionfish on their menus. Most restaurants buy their fish from the Isla Cozumel Fishing Cooperative, whose members catch tons of lionfish a year.

“Thanks to these efforts, a good market was opened. Today we sell lionfish at a price that is better than the prices for four of the species that were our mainstay. We are happy because we are caring for the sea and our income has risen,” said José Pérez, president of the fishing cooperative.

Fried lionfish

Isla Cozumel Fishing Cooperative leaders with fried lionfish.

GI has also collaborated with the national park and the municipality on the organization of seven lionfish tournaments and two “safaris,” in which teams of divers from Mexico and abroad compete to see who can spear the most lionfish in a day. The strategy seems to be working – monitoring found that lionfish densities on Cozumel’s reefs are a fraction of those reported for other parts of the Caribbean (14 individuals per hectare compared to as high as 400 per hectare).

“The cooperation among GI, the park, and the cooperative could serve as an example of how to deal with the lionfish threat in other parts of the MAR, or the Caribbean in general,” said Cristopher González, director of Cozumel Reefs Parks.

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