Mesoamerican Reef

Restoring the Abundance of Marine Life in the Mexico Caribbean through the Creation of Fish Refuges

Community monitoring team from the Cozumel Fishing Cooperative. Credit COBI

Community monitoring team from the Cozumel Fishing Cooperative. Credit COBI

In Mexico’s Caribbean state of Quintana Roo, the Kanan Kay Alliance works with fishing organizations to promote the creation of marine reserves (also called no-take zones or fish refuges) in their fishing grounds. The Kanan Kay Alliance is a multi-stakeholder initiative seeking to improve artisanal, or small-scale, fisheries co-management to help restore the biological richness and productivity of the waters off Quintana Roo. Kanan Kay (or “Guardian of the Fish” in Mayan) has the ambitious goal of fully protecting 20% of Quintana Roo’s territorial waters in no-take zones. As a collaboration of 46 institutions – ranging from fishing co-ops and NGOs to government agencies and academics – the Alliance is a unique coordinating and joint implementation platform for marine conservation in the Mesoamerican Reef Ecoregion.

Sixteen fish refuges covering 185 km2 have been created, with full participation and support from six artisanal fishing co-ops in central and southern Quintana Roo. Kanan Kay Alliance founding member, COBI, provides training for fishers in biological monitoring techniques to assess the effectiveness of the no-take areas.

To date, 72 fishers have been trained, including 36 in deep-sea SCUBA diving, to carry out underwater fish population surveys. “The fishers collect the data in the marine reserves each year,” explained Stuart Fulton, COBI’s Marine Reserve Program Coordinator. “By empowering the fishers to conduct the surveys, they get to see first-hand the recuperation in the fish and lobster populations.”

Fish refuge in Punta Herrero, Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Credit: Stuart Fulton/COBI

Positive changes have been seen in the fish refuges as previously overfished species recover. In Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve, for example, increases in size and abundance of key commercial species such as grouper and snapper have led to an increase of 195% in biomass (in ecology, biomass is usually expressed as the cumulative weight of a natural community or population per area unit). Lobster, the main fishery in the region, increased in abundance by over 300% in the fish refuges designated within the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

Fishers and fishing co-ops are critical to the success of the emerging fish refuges network. The Cozumel Cooperative operates a community surveillance program in Sian Ka’an to prevent illegal fishing. In collaboration with Mexico’s Federal Commission for Protected Areas and other Kanan Kay members, fishers are also exploring ecotourism as an alternative income source. Restoring natural fish abundance makes no-take areas attractive to nature tourism. Members of the Alliance have helped the fishing co-ops acquire boats for patrolling, snorkeling, and catch-and-release fly fishing.

Members of the Kanan Kay Alliance at the December 2015 General Assembly.

Members of the Kanan Kay Alliance at the 2015 General Assembly. Credit: Kanan Kay Alliance

Quintana Roo is becoming a living experiment for other Mexican coastal regions and neighboring countries. Its fish refuge network was initially conceived as a five-year pilot to allow for recovery of the economically important lobster. Thanks to the positive field data witnessed by the fishers, the co-ops are keen on extending the permanence of the fish refuges to ensure that the biological and economic benefits of the sites continue in the future. New co-ops see the benefits of fish refuges and are joining the Alliance. For instance, the Tulum Cooperative supported the establishment of a 9.88 km2 fish refuge in Akumal in collaboration with the Akumal Ecological Centre, where sea turtles are known to forage and nest. Two new fish refuges were created by the Punta Allen Cooperative to protect key fish spawning aggregation sites. The creation of these sites means that 4.5% of Quintana Roo’s waters, or 913 km2, is now fully protected under no-take status.

“It is only through collaborative efforts with the full participation of fishers that we will be able to restore and conserve the fisheries and biological diversity of the Mesoamerican reef,” said Luis Bourillon, Executive Coordinator of the Kanan Kay Alliance. “We will continue working in the Alliance to expand our reach and impact until our goals are accomplished. The cooperatives in our growing network are committed to continuing to invest in conservation.”

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