A Guatemalan Jewel under Threat: Discovery and Exploration of the Cayman Crown Coral Reef

Fabio Cresto Aleína

Climate change affects ecosystems all around the world, but one of the most threatened lies just some kilometers offshore from the Atlantic coasts of Guatemala and other countries in Central America, and it constitutes a key resource for millions of people: it’s the Mesoamerican Reef System. Coral reefs are underwater ecosystems providing home for an immense variety of species and they are among the most productive and biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. The Mesoamerican Reef (hereinafter MAR) stretches over 1000 km from the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula and touches the coasts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras in the Caribbean Sea. Like other coral reefs around the world, it provides a variety of inestimable ecosystem services to the communities living on the Mesoamerican Caribbean coast, as it protects the shorelines from strong waves and helps reducing coastal erosion, and it provides critical resources related to tourism and fisheries. Like other coral reefs around the world, the MAR is threatened by climate change, diseases, pollution and other human activities, and it is currently considered critically endangered by the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems.

Photo by Ana Giró (Healthy Reefs Initiative)

In the middle of the MAR, offshore from the Guatemalan coast, scientists discovered in 2014 a wonderful hidden gem: a new and yet uncharted part of the coral reef that was baptized Cayman Crown because of its crown-like form. “My colleague Ana Giró, the Guatemalan Coordinator for the Healthy Reef Initiative, discovered this coral reef by talking with some fishermen back in 2014” says Ángela Mojica, who with Ana Giró, has been instrumental in the investigation and in the exploration of this newly discovered coral reef system. “By exploring this reef system, we understood that it was a complex system, with a great variety of forms and characteristics that make this particular coral reef rich in biodiversity. It is the largest and best-preserved coral reef in Guatemala, and it is fundamental for the health and the connectivity of the whole MAR because of its location and its good state of health”. Ángela Mojica is the co-founder of Pixan’Ja, a non-governmental scientific organization active in the investigation of marine ecosystems and marine conservation in Latin America.

Part of the work of organizations like Pixan’Ja and Healthy Reefs consists in collaborating with governments and policy makers in order to highlight the most effective conservation strategies for the MAR ecoregion, which supports the livelihood of around two million people across four countries. Such activities include a better integrated management of the hydrologic basins in order to improve the quality of the incoming land-water, ensuring the sustainability of the fisheries and of the tourist sector, and studying and monitoring the key ecological processes of the region in order to allow faster and more efficient interventions. Of course, Pixan’Ja is not the only organization at work in the protection of the MAR: “We are part of a small community of scientists and conservatists working in the region, and we identified different activities which are of high priority” says Ángela when asked about her work in the MAR region.

Photo by Ana Giró (Healthy Reefs Initiative)

“WWF, Healthy Reefs Initiatives, MAR Fund, Fondo Mexicano para la Consevación de la naturaleza, and CORAL are just some of them, but we work closely with national universities, local communities, and governmental institutes as well”. The collaboration of Pixan’Ja and HRI led to a great success this year, as together, through the investigation and the exploration of the new reef, they collected the scientific and technical evidence needed to justify the conservation of Cayman Crown, and Ana Giró presented them to the decision-makers. The resolution taken in May 2020 by the Guatemalan Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and DIPESCA declared the area a no take zone (no fishing area, veda espacio-temporal in Spanish) for the next 10 years (2020-2030). “This kind of achievement motivates us to continue generating scientific data for the conservation of our marine resources”.

Photo by Ana Giró (Healthy Reefs Initiative)

Ángela has been working in the MAR for over twenty years, and she witnessed firsthand how this ecosystem underwent dramatic changes over this long period of time. “The most striking impression I have when thinking about coral reefs that I see today in comparison to the situation when I started diving here around 20 years, is that there are so much less animals around, and that we see corals bleached or dead more frequently” she remembers. “Not only there are much less fishes, but they are also smaller. Moreover, there are less conchs, less sea cucumbers, less lobsters, and seeing large organisms or more exotic species is becoming rarer each time. Corals are still incredible, you can find corals of every possible forms, dimensions and colors. However, more frequently we see them bleached after a hot year with strong hurricanes, and you’ll eventually find more and more death around you. The feeling you get sometimes is the one of loneliness and absence of colors, as the landscape is not the same as it was before”, Ángela continues passionately.

Coral bleaching is a sign of corals under stress. Because of increase in temperature, diseases, water pollution and/or changes in water level, corals expel the symbiotic algae living within their bodies which are crucial for their health and which give them such spectacular colors. As a result, corals are left bleached (white) and vulnerable to starvation and death if they do not recover their algae soon enough. The latest and lethal threat to Caribbean corals is the stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD), which is spreading across the Caribbean from north to south. Ángela and her colleagues are monitoring Cayman Crown for this new and aggressive coral disease which is ravaging corals. “This disease consists in the rapid loss of the coral living tissue and it is expanding within the MAR. The disease already arrived in Mexico (2018), in northern Belize (2019) and last September it was detected in Roatán, Honduras. We have not yet detected it in Guatemala, but we need to keep our monitoring and research on top of this issue”.

Photo by Ana Giró (Healthy Reefs Initiative)

The efforts that scientists and conservationists like Ángela Mojica deem necessary for the protection of the MAR, as well as the scientific work addressing climate change impacts and new coral diseases have been put on halt because of the recent health, social and economic crisis derived from the pandemic. All field monitoring activities Pixan’Ja and HRI were conducting had to stop given the national and regional restrictions for traveling. Online seminars and workshops were organized to communicate the ongoing research and the initial results from the monitoring work at Cayman Crown Reef to the broad public, but, while such events are key to reach out to the civil society, they can by no means substitute the importance of field research that organizations such as the one led by Ángela Mojica are conducting to preserve the MAR. The fate of such an extraordinary and yet fragile ecosystem lies in the possibility for these organization to resume their work as soon as the global and regional situation improves. Policy makers and funding agencies will have to keep supporting the work of such organizations if we want to give a sustainable future to the Mesoamerican Reef, and to the millions of people critically depending on its ecosystem services along with it.

Cover photo: Ana Giró (Healthy Reefs Initiative)