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Rescuing Coral 'Jewels'
By Néfer Muñoz

Fisherfolk, ecologists and government officials are working to protect the world's second largest coral reef, off the Caribbean coast of southern Mexico and Central America.

CAYOS COCHINOS, Honduras, (Tierramérica).- A multinational initiative is in motion to confront the threats looming over the Meso-American Reef, a biological treasure running 1,000 km through the Caribbean Sea, beginning off the Mexican coast of Yucatán and extending past Belize and Guatemala to the Cayos Cochinos Bay of Honduras.

The governments of the four countries have been engaged in a project since June 2001 to protect the reef, known as the Meso-American Barrier-Reef System (MBRS), and local fishing communities are promoting sustainable fishing practices, with the support of businesses and independent organizations.

"This jewel of marine biodiversity must not be destroyed, but rather used intelligently by society," Gerardo Salgado, Honduran vice-minister of Natural Resources and Energy, told Tierramérica.

The MBRS, a 15-year plan, promotes the coordinated creation of protected marine areas, sustainable fisheries management, tourism that respects the environment, and ecological education for local residents. The initiative has financial backing from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) of the World Bank.

In the works is an effort to bring Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama into the MBRS to protect the patches of coral reef existing along their coasts.

More than two million people depend on economic activities involving the sea along the Meso-American Reef -- the second largest in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, in the Pacific Ocean. The destruction of the reef would affect the chain of life in the ocean ecosystems, warn scientists.

"If we don't preserve it, the regional economy will suffer a heavy blow, mostly in fishing and tourism," said Costa Rican expert Silvia Marín, Central American representative for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in a conversation with Tierramérica.

The WWF, also known as the Worldwide Fund for Nature, is one of several organizations that have joined the effort to save this unique ecosystem, an immense storehouse of different life forms that seek refuge, grow and reproduce. More than 500 tropical fish species, four types of sea turtle and the largest fish on the planet, the whale shark, are just some of the notable inhabitants of the coral reef.

But contamination of the water, unregulated fishing, tourist extraction of material as souvenirs, and diseases affecting the coral are threatening the reef's very existence, says Marín.

Coral is in fact a sea animal that lives in colonies, preferring warm, shallow waters. The colonies form a calcium skeleton, which develops into a reef. But to do so they need seaweed. Through photosynthesis, the sea plants produce calcium carbonate, which fixes the coral to the reef, and the oxygen that other species need to breathe.

"This reef is threatened as much by natural phenomena as by human pressures," says biologist Adrián Oviedo, director of the Honduran Coral Reef Foundation, which works with local fishing families to implement sustainable practices.

But along the Mexican portion of the Meso-American Reef, tourism is the greatest culprit.

The coral is also suffering from bleaching, a disease that the scientists attribute to warmer sea temperatures and the pollution that clouds the waters, preventing the sun from reaching the sea plants that need the rays for photosynthesis.

The Foundation, created by local business leaders, has a science station set up in Cayos Cochinos, an archipelago located 450 km north of Tegucigalpa. The islets are named after the 'cochino' fish.

"We have come to realize that we must protect the reef," Félix Valerio, a resident of Chachahuate island, told Tierramérica. Dozens of locals of Garifuna descent -- communities of escaped African slaves of the past centuries --, like Valerio, have joined the sustainable fishing effort.

The fisherfolk have agreed to restrict the capture of certain species in specific areas and during set times of the year. They also alert the experts at the science station if large fishing ships enter the area, violating the ban on massive captures.

"If we don't do it, the children of our children will never know the many species that we enjoy today, and they won't have anything to eat," said Valerio.

* Néfer Muñoz is an IPS correspondent.

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