Mesoamerican Reef

Gauging the MAR’s Health to Help Save It

HRI partner meeting in 2015 of regional conservation managers in the MAR

The MAR is one of the few coral reef systems in the Atlantic that have shown improvement in reef health over the last decade. Overfishing and pollution are being measurably reduced by targeted marine conservation strategies.

Housed at the Smithsonian Institution, the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative (HRI) is a unique international program in partnership with 65 marine conservation, government, private sector and scientific organizations working to strengthen marine management and decision making in the four MAR countries, with an emphasis on the reef’s health and resiliency to better withstand local and global threats.

HRI grew out of a fundamental question asked more than a decade ago: “How do we know whether the reef is healthy or not, and how can we track our progress in improving it?” To achieve the goal of healthy reefs and healthy people, HRI partners have a shared concept of reef health and created an inclusive process for evaluating, reporting, and recommending key management actions.

The first Reef Health Report Card for the MAR, published in 2008, was based on data collection at 326 sites supported by The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund. The first Report Card provided a baseline condition, defined reef types, explained how the data was evaluated, and presented the results in a user-friendly manner with maps and illustrations. Report Cards, available at HRI, are launched simultaneously every two years in four-country events and media blitzes, sharing the stage with key partners, including government officials.

The latest overall MAR Reef Health Index for 2015 was 2.8 out of 5, up from 2.5 in the previous report (with 5 being the best health scenario). However, at a more granular level, most MAR reefs (40%) are in “poor” or “fair” (34%) condition. The percentage in critical condition (17%) declined while the “good” or “very good” proportion remains at 9%. Coral coverage has gone up since 2006, from 10% to 16%, although fleshy macroalgae, the main competitors with corals for open reef space, have also increased.

The task of compiling and analyzing the data, and producing a biennial report card is a major undertaking. Dr. Melanie McField, HRI Director, noted that it is just half the job. She and her team follow each Report Card with a major outreach campaign to alert the public and decision makers about the severity of the reef’s condition, and the repercussions that further deterioration could have on the region’s communities and the fishing and tourism industries.

“The Report Card has been successful at reaching a wide audience, including the general public, politicians, and high-level policy makers who now better understand the issues associated with reef,” said Dr. McField.

The Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize was declared in 1987 and now serves as a success story for marine protected areas

Management recommendations for priority actions to protect the reef are an important part of every Report Card. An imperative recommendation is the protection of keystone herbivores because they eat macroalgae that compete with corals for space. Declining herbivore numbers, particularly parrotfish, are linked to a growing abundance of macroalgae in the MAR. In Belize, HRI joined the Wildlife Conservation Society to raise public awareness of the issue, which led to the full protection of parrotfish in 2009. That was soon followed by similar protection measures in the Honduran Bay. In April 2015, Guatemala announced a fishing ban on parrotfish. HRI is now focusing on Quintana Roo, Mexico to the same end. If successful, the MAR would be the first international ecoregion to fully protect parrotfish as a way to protect a coral reef ecosystem.

Dr. Jeremy Jackson, formerly with Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Smithsonian Institution, remarked, “The exciting news that Guatemala has recently joined Belize and the Bay Islands of Honduras in banning the fishing of parrotfish is another critical step for the long-term conservation and recovery of corals on Mesoamerican reefs. Protecting herbivores of all kinds is critical to this endeavor.”

The efforts to bring back large fish are showing results. Data from 43 long-term survey sites showed 10 times more snapper and grouper biomass than found in reefs outside marine protected area (MPA) zones. The fact that prized commercial fish have begun to increase in biomass in some areas is an encouraging sign, even though large groupers are rare and mainly found in fully protected zones of MPAs.

The population increases should theoretically be followed by a reduction in macroalgal cover resulting from increased grazing from more parrotfish. Sites with higher cover of fleshy macroalgae generally also show higher biomass of herbivorous fish, suggesting nutrient enrichment is helping to drive ecosystem dynamics in the region and reinforcing the need to reduce land-based pollution.

HRI team in Tikal, Guatemala, with Dr. Melanie McField in center

Besides making science-based management recommendations, HRI has also played a central role in effecting policy changes and getting governments to protect vulnerable sites such as Turneffe Atoll in Belize, Cordelia Banks, off Roatán, and Banco Capiro, Tela Bay in Honduras. HRI’s research has strengthened conservation efforts across the MAR region and guided the Summit Foundation’s funding decisions.

Despite these recent improvements, all coral reefs still teeter on the cusp of recovery or complete decline unless further safeguards are made and global climate change is fully addressed. Enduring success hinges on continued strong partnerships among academics and civil and governmental partners, working closely with HRI to monitor the effectiveness of their conservation and management interventions through future Reports.

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