Damage to Coral Reefs Hurts Fishing Communities in Central America

Punta Remedios is a beach of singular beauty that also provides shelter for the boats of the fishing community of Los Cóbanos, on the Pacific coast of El Salvador. It is home to the only rocky reef with coral growth in the country, which is being damaged by climate phenomena and human activities. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS
Punta Remedios is a beach of singular beauty that also provides shelter for the boats of the fishing community of Los Cóbanos, on the Pacific coast of El Salvador. It is home to the only rocky reef with coral growth in the country, which is being damaged by climate phenomena and human activities. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS
  • by Edgardo Ayala (los cÓbanos, el salvador)
  • Inter Press Service
  • This article is part of IPS coverage of World Environment Day, celebrated June 5, whose theme this year is “ecosystem restoration”.

Morán lives on the edge of Punta Remedios beach, just outside the 22-hectare Complejo Los Cóbanos Natural Protected Area, a marine reserve located in the western department of Sonsonate, El Salvador.

The site is known as the habitat of the only rocky reef with coral growth in this Central American country that has coastline only on the Pacific Ocean.

Los Cóbanos is a hamlet in the canton of Punta Remedios, Acajutla municipality, whose capital has the same name. It is located about 90 kilometres west of San Salvador. The village is in a coastal area of poor communities that mainly depend on fishing.

From talking about coral reefs with marine biologists who work in the area and with whom he collaborates, Morán has learned that they are hurt by warm water temperatures.

“This water is so hot that it already looks like soup," the 56-year-old fisherman told IPS, aware that the impact on the coral is also affecting the livelihoods of people in the fishing communities.

Many of the fish species that are of commercial value to the community, such as red snapper, breed and find shelter in the reefs.

Other fishermen from Los Cóbanos with whom IPS spoke confirmed that fish are increasingly scarce in the area.

Melvin Orellana, 41, said he went to sea a few days ago, but caught less than 2.5 kilos of fish.

"I didn't even cover the cost of the gas," said the father of two.

Orellana uses nine 18-gallon (68-litre) drums of gasoline to run his 75-horsepower engine. A gallon (almost four litres) costs about four dollars.

He and the other fishermen make forays up to 70 nautical miles (130 kilometres) offshore to fish for shark, dorado and snapper.

Coral reefs at risk of perishing

The warming of sea temperatures produced by climate change and expressed, for example, in the El Niño phenomenon, is one of the factors that is damaging coral reefs around the world, and Los Cóbanos is no exception, said biologists interviewed by IPS.

This warming causes the "bleaching" of corals, colonial organisms that live in association with microalgae, which provide food through photosynthesis, but which the corals end up expelling when they are stressed by the increase in water temperature. When they lose the microalgae, they bleach.

That is a sign that they are being impacted; they are not yet dead, but they could die if the temperatures stay warm too long, marine biologist Johanna Segovia told IPS.

"If the coral stays at that temperature for three months, it starts to die... but if the temperature returns to normal, it can recover again," added Segovia, a researcher at the Francisco Gavidia University in El Salvador.

The impact is already evident, and has been confirmed by biologists.

"We have gone from three percent coral cover to only one percent" in the Los Cóbanos nature reserve, Segovia said after diving among the reefs off the coast, which she does regularly as part of her research on the local ecosystem.

Currently, the live coral cover observed in the area belongs to the Porites lobata species.

A report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned in 2019 that by 2050, 70 to 90 percent of the world's coral reefs would be lost, even if actions were promoted at the international level that managed to stabilise global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

It is this warming of the water that drives fish away from the shore to compensate for the difference in temperature, as they are not able to regulate it themselves.

In addition to the phenomena associated with climate change, these organisms are being hit by the actions of industrial fishing and local communities.

For example, poor management of river basins upstream leads to pollution and sediment reaching the reef ecosystem.

The extensive use of pesticides in agriculture and deforestation affect the upstream river basins, whose waters carry pollution and sediments to the coral reef zone.

"Coral reefs are fragile ecosystems, and some environmental variables in the ocean, such as temperature and sedimentation, are factors that play a major role in their deterioration," Francisco Chicas, a professor at the University of El Salvador's School of Biology, told IPS.

Unsustainable tourism is another cause of this deterioration, with visitors often disrespecting local regulations that prohibit affecting the coral ecosystem in any way.

Tourists can approach species that are near the surface, but they are not allowed to touch them, let alone try to catch them.

It is even forbidden to take biogenic sand, which is yellow in color and is actually the remains of decomposed shells and corals.

In Punta Remedios people have organised to make sure nothing like that happens.

"On Sundays, my son-in-law confiscates bottles with sand and small crabs," said Morán, who has four grown children and who, together with his wife, María Ángela Cortés, runs a mini seafood restaurant located on a wooden platform overlooking the sea.

He complained that tourists leave garbage strewn everywhere.

José Cruz Miranda, another local resident, collects empty soft drink and beer cans. He has a total of 30 kilos stored in his house. He sells them for 0.80 cents per kilo to a recycling company in Ajacutla.

Miranda, who has diabetes, uses the money from the cans to buy the medicine he needs.

"That helps me cope with my diabetes," he told IPS.

Central American similarities

The factors that are impacting the reefs in Los Cóbanos also affect the rest of Central America.

In Costa Rica, coral reefs "are losing their health due to all the anthropogenic and natural factors, and of course all of this is aggravated by climate change," Tatiana Villalobos, co-founder of the non-governmental Raising Coral Costa Rica, told IPS.

That country has some 970 square kilometres of coral cover on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, although Villalobos noted that the figure is from 10 years ago.

There are areas, she said, where reefs recover better than others.

One example off the Costa Rican Pacific coast is Cocos Island, located about 535 kilometres to the southeast. The situation there has been controlled and the reefs can be said to be in good health.

It is on the coast, Villalobos said, where there has been a significant loss of coral cover, due to sedimentation, pollution and generally poor environmental practices.

Overfishing is also a problem, as it is in the rest of Central America and the world.

This happens when herbivorous species are fished, which causes changes in the ecosystem that end up impacting the reef.

Overfishing in Los Cóbanos, for example, is a serious problem, especially because although people from the local fishing communities use hand lines, those who come from other areas fish with nets, even though they are banned.

In Honduras, the situation is quite similar.

Gisselle Brady, programme coordinator for the non-governmental Bay Islands Conservation Ecological Association (BICA), told IPS that although the ecosystems and culture in this area of the Honduran Caribbean are different from those of the Pacific coast, the problems are basically the same.

Among them, she mentioned overfishing, climate change, unsustainable tourism, and the lack of regulation by the State to keep these ecosystems healthy.

On the contrary, Brady added that the Honduran government is promoting, with a law passed in 2018, further growth of the tourism sector, as well as the controversial industrial parks called Employment and Economic Development Zones (Zedes), which do not abide by national laws.

This is even impacting nature reserves with coral reefs, such as the Nombre de Dios park in La Ceiba, in northern Honduras, she said.

"It is sad that national laws are driving such unsustainable development," said the expert from the island of Roatan, the largest in the Bay Islands department.

She pointed out that a measurement used in the so-called Mesoamerican Reef, which covers the Caribbean coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, gives a score of five when the reef is healthy.

Honduras has gone from three, considered fair, to 2.5, which is poor. Danger stalks its reefs. And it is not alone.

© Inter Press Service (2021) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service