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.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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