Rapid tourism growth and declining coral reefs in Akumal, Mexico
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Ecosystem-based management efforts in coral reefs typically focus on reducing fishing pressure. However, independent of overfishing, tourism can degrade coral reefs through coastal development, as well as the physical presence of tourists within the ecosystem, the effects of which remain poorly understood. We combined a 3-year dataset on coral and algal cover with a more extensive survey of the benthic community to examine the effect of intensive tourism on a coral reef in Akumal Bay, Mexico. Results from our 3-year dataset indicated that near the peak snorkeling area in the bay, coral cover decreased by 79 % from summer 2011 through summer 2014, a period in which the number of monthly snorkelers increased by more than 400 %. Our summer 2013 survey of the benthic community between sites within a zone of dense snorkeler traffic versus site at a nearby control location revealed negative effects of intensive tourism on particular coral morphologies and on the abundance of herbivorous reef fishes. Our results suggest that uncontrolled tourism, including accelerating growth in the number of snorkelers, is likely contributing to the decline of the coral reef in Akumal Bay, where further expansions in tourism are planned. Indeed, the ecosystems threatened by overexploitation via tourism in the Mayan Riviera also form the basis for the regional tourism industry. Thus, long-term ecological monitoring coupled with the establishment and enforcement of regulations on tourism may be essential for the sustainability of coral reefs, as well as the socioeconomic benefits they provide in Mexico.
We thank Marine Botany-Mexico (University of Texas at Austin) instructors P. Bucolo, S. Fredriksen, D. Erdner, L. Rocha, and S. Wilson, and students L. Baum, M. Becker, S. Cathey, C. Chaloupka, S. Garza, H. Graham, J. Griffin, W. Hall, S. Killian, M. Lopez, K. Mendenhall, S. Setta, K. Thompson, C. Wood, and J. Young, who assisted with data collection. We are grateful to P. Sánchez-Navarro and the greater Centro Ecológico Akumal organization, as well as L. Bush Wolfe (Hotel Akumal Caribe) for field logistical support, lecture and laboratory space, and housing. This study was partially funded by an undergraduate research initiative sponsored by The University of Texas at Austin Executive Vice President and Provost’s 2013 Initiative for International Studies to KD. MAG was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship award (DGE-0802270) and a Florida Sea Grant Fellowship.
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