“If they build the new pier and build the condos, the Cozumel coral reef is going to be remembered only in history books, nothing more, it will no longer exist.”
Dr German Mendez first visited Cozumel 40 years ago.
“I was a veterinarian, I lived in Mexico City. I used to take care of animals, I came here to learn to dive, and when I learned, I didn’t go back, I stayed here, I pursued a career in diving.
In the 1990s he began to notice the impact tourism was having on the reef, joining a protest group called Corales Vivos that adamantly fought against a cruise ship terminal being built.
“In 1994 they built that pier and we were marching in the streets with banners telling them not to build the pier because they were going to destroy the corals below, and they told me ‘you’re just a veterinarian, you don’t even know what a coral is.’ So I made the decision to go to the USA to study. I got a master’s degree in marine biology and specialised in corals, and when I returned 80 percent of the corals that I wanted to defend in Puerta Maya had died.”
Today Dr Mendez runs the Cozumel Coral Reef Restoration Program (CCRRP), and along with a group of citizens called ‘No al Cuarto Muelle’ he is fighting the construction of another cruise ship dock that would “place the last nail in the reef’s coffin.”
So how does the CCRRP work?
“We rescue, plant and clean corals. A lot of people come here to dive, yet during their diving courses they’re not taught what a coral is, most assume that they are rocks instead of living animals. So when they come here they don’t know how to take care of the corals and end up breaking them. Our job is to collect the fragments of broken corals that are still alive and replant them on platforms. Then we take care of them with volunteers who take our course. After which they help us clean and plant them again in another area where they can survive. We started four years ago with one platform and right now we have 23.”
The CCRRP is run in a space below Sunset Restaurant in San Miguel de Cozumel. The space has an educational center and a wet lab to spawn corals. Dr Mendez runs the program with Dr Anastasia Banasak, Dr Ernesto Arias and Dr Johanna Calle, along with a network of volunteers from all over the world.
“When the corals have sexual reproduction that happens once a year, we put nets on top of the corals and then we capture their gametes, we bring them here and fertilize them. Then we place the babies in these aquariums, where they stick to structures. Each structure has one or two polyps, we keep them here for one to two months, after that we plant them back in the sea and there they grow to be corals. This is one of the ways to plant en masse, because you can plant 2000 corals each year.”
Underwater, in the sea in front of the lab, the CCRRP installed platforms where coral fragments are planted using an epoxi resin.
“To see if it is working or not, we count the species of fish there are [in the restoration area], the more species the better this restoration is working.”
But what’s killing the corals?
“Our biggest problem is everything that is happening — development, cruise ships, beach clubs — everything together has made the water quality very bad.”
Most developments lack appropriate infrastructure. For example, 52 beach clubs opened near the Marine Park with only septic tanks and no water treatments. The gray water is leaking sewage into the sea and this sewage encourages the growth of macroalgae.
Corals are animals that have a symbiotic relationship with a certain species of microalgae, called zooxanthellae. Dr Mendez explains that macroalgae blooms, caused by the decreasing water quality, are invading the surfaces where coral polyps would attach, thus not allowing it to grow and breaking the relationship between the corals and the zooxanthellae. “It’s an ecological disaster.”
12000 years ago the entire island of Cozumel was an underwater reef. After the Glacial Period the reef surfaced, the coral died and petrified, creating the island we know today. I interviewed Dr Mendez on the west side of the island, which has no sand and overlooks the reef. It’s a rock platform formed from petrified coral that Dr Mendez explains, over the years, stimulated the stunning underwater reef to flourish. Yet because developers need sand for their beach clubs, some have transported sand from the other side of the island.
“Since no one knows what a coral is, when they come to Cozumel on vacation they are being sold a beach with sand. Three beach clubs took sand from the other side of the island where the turtles need it to lay their eggs, and put it here to promote an idyllic tropical Caribbean experience. But that sand then killed all the corals that lived in the sea in front of it. The developers sell what is easy and end up changing what the ecosystem here looks like. I think the tourism sector lacks a lot of knowledge about our reality.”
“I remember that when I got here there were some grouper fish my size, giants. Everywhere was full of seahorses. All of that no longer exists. So when a new diver arrives and says, omg how beautiful I am in the Caribbean, they just see a stone covered in algae with two little fish on top, that’s it. Yet they still think they are in paradise. It is a lack of understanding, because the operators have been allowed to do what they want in a destructive pursuit of profit.”
“Here there are 245 dive shops. Of the 245 stores, none work in coral restoration. So there are three programs — the CCRRP, the Fundacion de Parques y Museos de Cozumel and the Office of the Marine Park — that strive to educate divers so that they know how to behave in a coral reef and can provide us with information about what they are seeing. They learn how to identify coral species, how to clean them and how to plant them, how to dive with a purpose.”
Unfortunately neither water contamination nor negligent divers are Dr Mendez’s main concerns: two years ago the local government accepted a proposal to add a fourth cruise ship pier to the island.
“The thing is this, how many divers come here to dive Cozumel per day? 3000 divers dive in the Marine Park every day. How many people arrive on seven cruises each day? 50,000 right now. If they open the new dock and another seven ships arrive, there will be 100,000 people a day in Cozumel who don’t care if there are corals or not, because they are not divers. For them there is clear water, it is beautiful, there is my piña colada, I am happy, do you understand me? And the rest doesn’t matter, that’s the problem. The serious problem we have is lack of awareness from the people who visit us, and the people who do the operations are taking advantage of that to do what they want.”
Incidentally, the area the developers are planning to build is exactly where Dr Mendez runs his restoration program.
“Here the tide goes out, this is the real beach of Cozumel, all of the layers of coral, all of this is where they want to put the next pier. They arrived with a herbicide and they killed all the mangroves that were here, and after two weeks they took a photo saying ‘look there is nothing there’ and they got their permit accepted. This was two years ago. Since then all the people that I bring here have also planted mangroves.
“Right now the construction of the pier has stopped because a group of citizens got together and filed a class action lawsuit against the pier, and did so claiming it was against human rights. We did not even mention the environmental cause, because they are not interested, but we put it for human rights because this is the only beach that is still public.”
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I thought Cozumel was a marine protected area?
“Yes but as long as money is involved, the protected area is forgotten, because here it’s all about the economy, the rest doesn’t matter. And that is the serious problem: everyone thinks about their future, they do not think about the future of others and what will become of the island.
“Technically Cozumel has around 50 conservation titles. You tell me where the conservation is? People arrive at night, like criminals, to put herbicide and kill what they know is protected by law. And then they take photos and the government accepts their project. How do you do it? How do you fight this?
“If they keep following this trend and build more docks and condos without appropriate treatment plans, the Cozumel reef ecosystem is going to be found only in the books, nothing more. It will no longer exist. The same is happening in Playa del Crimen. The same is happening in Cancun. The same is happening in Akumal and Tulum. They are decimating the state of Quintana Roo in a very short time. This island has been inhabited for 3000 years. The Mayans lived here and the Mayans knew how to live for 3000 years on natural resources. In less than two generations, we have already killed half the island with everything we are doing.”
The island of Cozumel and its biodiverse coral ecosystem is in deep trouble. Its reputation as a magnificent barrier reef is quickly fading. Although humans are causing this problem, the Mayans showcase how we can be part of the solution. Increased awareness and collective action can return this island to its days of glory.
“This is why we continue to plant corals and continue to educate people, we have to do it somehow. I cannot stay like the others, silent and say nothing, or do nothing. I’d rather die poor than lose the reefs… But these people… they believe that only money is worth it, but you can’t eat money.”
Dr German Mendez has dedicated his life to saving this fragile and beautiful ecosystem. His battle is one that is felt all over the world. Corporate greed is decimating the local population, the cruise liners and the developers will benefit and the local population will ultimately lose out. Healthy coral reefs not only support increased marine life and sustainable levels of tourism, they are also a natural shield against hurricanes.
“Imagine if every tourist that came here planted a coral instead?”
Don’t let Cozumel become another embarrassment on the Mayan Riviera, sign the ‘No al Cuarto Muelle’ petition to stop the construction of a fourth cruise pier. And if you do want to visit Cozumel, make sure you plant a coral before you leave. Be part of the solution, not the problem.
Isabella Cavalletti is a storyteller and co-founded eco-nnect.