Huatulco coral dies; 95% are affected

Due to the increase in sea temperature, bleaching can wipe out a reserve that has five thousand years of history

In 2023, the Oaxacan port experiences a before and after. The serious impact of climate change and the El Niño phenomenon can be observed from the air, and even more so, underwater, with images that confirm the accelerated progress of the doomsday clock or at least the world as we know it today.

The three-degree increase in sea temperature killed between 70 and 95% of the corals in Bahías de Huatulco through bleaching, in the months of May to September, in the reefs that for a long time were the largest and most preserved in the world.

Andrés López Pérez, researcher at the Coastal Ecosystems Laboratory of the UAM Iztapalapa (UAM-I), revealed that the water rose from 30 to 33 degrees Celsius, even at depths of more than 20 meters.

Gabriela García Vázquez, director of the Wild Coast Conservation Program in Oaxaca, explained that bleaching occurs when corals lose the algae with which they live associated, and which provide them with more than 50% of the energy they require to survive.

In this way, the main tourist attraction of Huatulco is dying before the astonished gaze of visitors and inhabitants of the towns of the nine bays.

“These are times we never thought we would see; I make the analogy with the covid-19 pandemic, we never thought we were going to experience something like this, and now it is the reef’s turn,” said Virgilio Antonio Pérez, Scuba Diving instructor.

The marine biologist also recognized that the arrival of national and international tourists, who arrive in the high seasons to swim in this reef ecosystem, recognized as one of the most important coral systems in the Mexican Pacific, is at risk.

“The important thing is not to lie to tourism, to tell the truth, because it is an impressive process, and someone might think: Look, how beautiful, the reef is full like snow, but in reality, we must explain to them that it is bad, because the coral is suffering thermal stress,” he indicated.

According to Dr. Andrés López Pérez, an expert from the Department of Hydrobiology at the UAM-I, due to the thickness of the reefs, it can be estimated that the corals of Huatulco are around five thousand years old.

“The phenomenon is irreversible as these corals are already dead; The reef system as such has the capacity to recover, but it would take a long time, we are talking about in the absence of humans, which is impossible in this context, approximately 15 or 20 years,” he calculated.

Gabriela García Vázquez, from Costa Salvaje, commented that with the loss of coral reefs we also say goodbye to an important natural barrier against storms and hurricanes, as well as important refuges for species of fishing importance and sites of great scenic beauty, which they serve for tourism and research.

Mexico is no stranger to the suffocating heat waves that hit the world, which this year broke historical temperature records on sea and land.

According to NASA, this summer was the hottest since 1880; Experts from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) established that the months of June, July and August combined were 0.23 degrees warmer than any other summer and 1.2 degrees above the average summer between 1951 and 1980.

Paula Tussie, Communication and Public Policy Manager of Costa Salvaje, stressed that in Huatulco, the beginning of the end began in May with the appearance of dead birds and fish on the beach, due to high temperatures.

“And suddenly bleaching happened, everything happened practically overnight, and now we already have 95% of the corals bleached in Huatulco,” she lamented.

On July 24, the Huatulco National Park (PNH) celebrated 25 years of creation as a Protected Natural Area (PNA), at a time when it faces the greatest challenge in its history in its 18 reef sites.

“There is an impact on everyone, it is a widespread effect and not only right now here in Huatulco but at the national and global level. Unfortunately, they are very vulnerable sites, because the actions that can be carried out are minimal, unlike a forest, where we can close it and pour water on it,” said Edmundo Aguilar López, director of the Huatulco National Park.

Faced with this alarming situation, the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (Conanp) wants to restore order with a PNH Management Program, which dates back to 2002, that is, it should have been updated 16 years ago, for more than six thousand terrestrial hectares of surface and five thousand 500 hectares of marine surface.

“Right now, we have three park rangers as part of the team. We are few but, for example, we already have community surveillance groups,” commented biologist Edmundo Aguilar López.

He explained that the management that Conanp proposes to carry out involves reducing the number of visitors to the reefs, – respecting the carrying capacity –, swimming without fins and without sunscreen; Visitations with schedules and maximum time spent at the sites.

He said that he also began a registry of the estimated 260 vessels that irregularly carry out swimming or diving activities in the reefs.

An example of the lack of control that exists in the Huatulco National Park is that they are just trying to establish the payment of fees for visitors of 58 pesos per person, which could serve to promote conservation actions.

Precisely for these tasks, Mexico requires climate financing with laws, regulations and protocols for the purchase and sale of carbon credits, to invest in the restoration of coral reefs.

“Legislation is useless without implementation; we need strong public policies that are applied now and that truly seek both the benefit of the environment and that of local communities. The most vulnerable communities in the country in terms of poverty, migration, etc., are also the most vulnerable communities to climate change,” said Paula Tussie, Communication and Public Policy manager of Costa Salvaje.

An important part carried out by the environmental organization Costa Salvaje is environmental education about good practices in coral reefs, both by service providers and tourists.

Source: Excelsior