Underwater Museum of Art Attracts Divers, But Is It Enough to Save the Reefs?
By Matt Blois
More than 20 feet below the surface of the water, on the sandy sea floor between Cancún and Isla Mujeres in Mexico, a lobster takes refuge beneath a miniature concrete house. Scuba divers watch as the lobster slinks underneath the foundation. Farther on, hundreds of statues stand in tight circles. A little girl holds a purse close to her chest. A man looks straight ahead with a broom in hand. A thin layer of algae, sponges and coral covers the statues from head to toe.
The statues, the house and the lobster are all part of the Underwater Museum of Art, a project intended to divert scuba divers from the overused reefs in the national park Costa Occidental Isla Mujeres, Punta Cancún y Punta Nizúc. The park is near Cancún and Isla Mujeres, an island 13 kilometers off the Cancún coast. Inexperienced divers can harm the reef by accidentally breaking corals. But some scientists are skeptical of the museum's conservation value. And though it's not hurting the reef, they fear the museum may distract from more important threats to reef health such as coastal development and inadequate water treatment.
"It's a good business," Roberto Iglesias Prieto, a reef researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences and Limnology just outside of Cancún, said. "The problem is that it's sold as a conservation measure."
In the years leading up to the creation of the museum, several powerful hurricanes damaged the reefs in the national park. Mexico's National Commission of Protected Areas considered closing the reefs to tourism to allow them to recover. That sounded like bad news to the dive operators in the area. Closing the reefs would hurt business, so divers and park managers worked together to find a compromise.
In 2009, the diving community and the protected areas commission decided to create an underwater museum. It seemed like the perfect solution: Divers would find the site interesting, it would take pressure off the nearby coral reefs and it would provide habitat for sea life.
There's just one issue: Iglesias Prieto doesn't believe tourists are to blame for the deterioration of the reef. "They invented a problem and then solved it," he said, adding that the real threat is water pollution. "Coral reefs grow in places where the water is very transparent. And what we have here are discharges of very dirty water."
Susana Enriquez, another reef researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences and Limnology, agreed, pointing to the influence of the hotel industry in the decision-making process. "As long as the private sector has priority in nearly all decision making and as long as the sustainability of this natural heritage and the value of this natural heritage doesn't have a stronger position, it's just maintaining the appearance of doing something while complying with the interests of investors that use natural resources for private benefit."
The wastewater from the city of Cancún gets treated, but it's still high in nitrogen and phosphorous when it leaves the treatment plant. The treated water flows into Nichupte, the salty lagoon that separates the city of Cancún from the hotel zone and eventually makes its way to the ocean. In the low-nutrient waters of the Caribbean, the nitrogen and phosphorous act like fertilizer for fleshy algae. The algae, which wouldn't grow in nutrient poor water, starts to take over the reefs, eventually outcompeting the coral.
Fleshy algae is now widespread throughout the Mesoamerican reef system, which stretches from the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula in México to Honduras. And it's becoming more prevalent. The Healthy Reefs Initiative, an international effort to track the health of the Mesoamerican reef, found that fleshy algal cover increased from 13 percent in 2006 to 23 percent in 2014.
Wastewater high in nitrogen and phosphorous is spurring algae growth in the region and algae is competing with corals for space on the statutes. Photo credit: Marc Dicklin
The algae is taking over the museum as well. The museum provides a habitat for new coral colonies—coral polyps can attach to the hard surface of the statutes—but at the same time, fleshy algae has moved in to the noses, ears and mouths of the statues. The algae competes for space with the coral and can block incoming sunlight by growing right on top of the coral.
Jaime Gonzalez Cano, former director of the national park where the museum is located and one of its founders, acknowledged the threat of water pollution, but said scientists underestimate the impact scuba divers have on the reef. The Cairns planning area—one of the most visited areas of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia—covers about 7,700 square miles and receives close to a million visits each year. In comparison, the Costa Occidental Isla Mujeres, Punta Cancún y Punta Nizúc national park in Cancún covers about 33 square miles—less than one percent of the size of the Cairns planning area on the Great Barrier Reef—and receives about 750,000 people per year.
That's a lot of visitors in a relatively small area. Gonzalez Cano estimated that the museum kept roughly 200,000 visitors off the natural reefs in 2015. He doesn't have the hard data to prove it, but said he can see an improvement in reef health when he goes diving.
Gonzalez Cano recently left the park to become a researcher at the National Institute of Fisheries, but as park director, he kept a severed head made of concrete behind a filing cabinet in his office to demonstrate his point. An inexperienced diver knocked it clean off one of the statues in the underwater museum. "If that happens with one of these things, which are pretty hard, imagine what it would do to the coral," he said.
He isn't the only one who thinks divers have a negative impact on coral reefs. "Diving tourism does have … strongly negative effects on coral reefs where it's intensive," said Nanette Chadwick, a researcher at the University of Auburn who has studied the impact of diving on reefs in the Red Sea, Florida and the Caribbean. "But it should not detract government and public interest away from the other serious issues affecting reefs." She listed climate change, overfishing and nutrient pollution as the three biggest problems facing reefs globally. She said there's good evidence that artificial reefs in the Red Sea can reduce the impact of divers. "If you remove and reduce the impact of diving tourism, it helps the reef to be more resilient to these other impacts," she said.
Part of the problem in Cancún is that managers of protected areas don't have the power or resources to tackle the most important threats to the reef. Back at the office of the protected areas commission, when he was still serving as director of the park, Gonzalez Cano pointed out the window. "Look at the boats. I don't have any captains," he said, referring to the patrol boats tied up to the docks just outside. They even cut the phone line to the office.
Gonzalez Cano said he didn't have the power to change public policy regarding wastewater treatment. In the midst of budget cuts, he had to wrangle scuba divers, politicians, hotel owners, scientists and tourists. "It's a combination of everything," he said. Pollution, climate change, overfishing and tourism all present threats to the reef. For now, at least, the park is focused on controlling the divers.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
<div id="7aab6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4bff71c40172c15736f73fe73ed18078"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1330967606585593857" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Today, I’m announcing the first members of my national security and foreign policy team. They will rally the world… https://t.co/bAisIQk5P6</div> — Joe Biden (@Joe Biden)<a href="https://twitter.com/JoeBiden/statuses/1330967606585593857">1606162380.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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