Eighteen years and counting - keeping Cabo Pulmo safe is still a critical task


June marks two important anniversaries for Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo National Park, and both are reminders that protecting coral reefs is an enduring and critical challenge. Earlier this month, local residents and NGOs celebrated the 18th anniversary of the creation of the national park.  Its protected status, along with concerted conservation efforts by the local community, helped make Cabo Pulmo what it is today – one of the world’s most robust marine reserves. Tomorrow, June 15, is the one year anniversary of the cancellation of Cabo Cortés – the massive tourism resort that threatened Cabo Pulmo’s coral reef and was the target of a major grassroots and international campaign. Announced in the lead up to the Rio+20 Earth Summit, the cancellation was one of key sustainability commitments by a national government made at the time. Yet despite these conservation successes, Cabo Pulmo – like other reef ecosystems around the world – still faces threats from a changing climate and ocean chemistry. The hazard of these global threats makes it even more essential to protect Cabo Pulmo from local threats such as future Cabo Cortés-style projects that could degrade the reef, and therefore limit its ability to withstand global warming.

Coral reefs cover less than one percent of the ocean, but harbor over 25 percent of marine biodiversity. These rich marine habitats formed slowly over tens of thousands of years, but around the world these ancient ecosystems are now at risk of disappearing at a shockingly fast rate in the face of both global and local threats. As the climate warms it raises ocean temperatures to dangerous levels for corals, and CO2 emissions absorbed by the ocean result in ocean acidification, a phenomenon that effectively corrodes corals and other organisms. Pollution from cities, industries and agriculture are all toxic to a reef’s fragile organisms. Unsustainable fishing and tourism practices also degrade reef ecosystems and the marine biodiversity they support. In fact, due to the combination of the impacts of climate change and local pressures, it’s estimated that seventy-five percent of the world’s corals are at risk.  

Scary stuff, especially if you consider how much we depend on coral reefs. By some calculations, globally these ecosystems provide total net benefits valued at $29.8 billion every year by supporting national fisheries, creating tourism jobs, serving as a repository for biodiversity and protecting communities along coastlines from storms and erosion.

But here’s the good news: coral reefs are resilient. Cabo Pulmo is an excellent example of how degraded coral reefs can sometimes recover. Two decades ago, years of unsustainable fishing practices had significantly diminished the area’s marine life. After the park was created and designated a no-take zone, marine life rebounded by an astonishing 463 percent in just ten years. 

Yet if coral reefs are to withstand the impacts associated with a global threat like climate change, countries need to minimize localized threats like overfishing, pollution and coastal development. In short, healthy coral reefs are better suited to withstand warming temperatures, climactic disruptions and oceans acidification. That’s why planning mega coastal developments in close proximity to a fragile area like Cabo Pulmo National Park is simply a bad idea and not in line with Mexico’s climate adaptation goals. Mexico has just released a new climate change strategy and one of the plan’s eight axes is to “foster adaptability of ecosystems to the effects of climate change”. In the case of critically important coral reefs like Cabo Pulmo, one way to do this will be to ensure that any future development in Baja’s East Cape region is low-impact and in line with protecting the park and the well-being of the community that has worked for eighteen years to preserve the reef. 

Photo Credit: Octavio Aburto