Improve Laws to Protect Corals in Latin America

by Asociacion Interamericana Para La Defensa Del Ambiente (AIDA)
Improve Laws to Protect Corals in Latin America
Improve Laws to Protect Corals in Latin America
Improve Laws to Protect Corals in Latin America
Improve Laws to Protect Corals in Latin America
Improve Laws to Protect Corals in Latin America
Improve Laws to Protect Corals in Latin America
Improve Laws to Protect Corals in Latin America
Improve Laws to Protect Corals in Latin America
Improve Laws to Protect Corals in Latin America
Improve Laws to Protect Corals in Latin America
Improve Laws to Protect Corals in Latin America
Improve Laws to Protect Corals in Latin America
Cozumel Reef - Credit G. Danemann
Cozumel Reef - Credit G. Danemann

The Mesoamerican Reef is the largest coral reef barrier in the western hemisphere and extends over 1,000 kilometers along the coastlines of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. Uncontrolled and intense coastal development, anthropogenic interventions, and degradation of ecosystems over wide extensions of these coasts are among the greatest threats to the MAR region. While all four countries have made concerted efforts to manage, conserve, and protect coastal ecosystems, there has been a lack of transparency in the governance framework, poor implementation, a disconnect between management and research, and geopolitical differences, which have played a role in reducing management efficacy.

AIDA has developed the report “Assessing Legal Opportunities to Improve the Health and Resilience of the Mesoamerican Reef” to document and analyze opportunities to improve the protection of the region, including of course Mexico.  To produce the document, we have collaborated with local, national, and international partners to collect ideas and compile the most promising opportunities from the legal perspective to revamp management and conservation in the MAR region, with a particular focus on policy and litigation strategies.

In doing so, one of these recommendations is to set up a "task force" to solve the great problem of contamination of the MAR, caused by the lack of sanitation of the rivers that flow into the area.  Excessive use of pesticides, inadequate management of solid waste -especially plastic-, lack of wastewater treatment and tremendous deforestation are some of the causes that contaminate the riverside ecosystems and end up in the ocean, where the MAR's coral reefs are found.

AIDA is leading the formation of this task force, and we will continue to accompany our partner organizations with our legal expertise. We are also reviewing the possibility of a regional litigation to ensure the compliance and enforcement of legal dispositions regarding the prevention of pollution of rivers that flow directly to the MAR.

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Sandra Moguel leads our Mexico coral program
Sandra Moguel leads our Mexico coral program

This is a final report for our fundraising efforts to distribute and utilize AIDA’s coral protection Guide throughout Latin America.  But the good news is that we have launched a new campaign - Save Mexico’s Coral Reefs - to protect endangered coral reefs in Mexico.

Our new campaign focuses specifically on remediation of reefs in Veracruz, in the Gulf of Mexico, and preservation of the pristine Cabo Pulmo Reef in Baja California Sur. We will use the lessons learned, tools and techniques outlined in our International Regulatory Best Practices for Coral Reef Protection to address the challenges and opportunities in each of these locations.

Managed by our Marine Attorney, Sandra Moguel, the Veracruz and Cabo Pulmo cases provide urgent and critical opportunities for action:

  • To expand the Port of Veracruz, the government has modified a protected area on a string of 27 reefs between six islands. Construction has damaged the reef and the nearby Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve, a source of rock for the port.
  • In Cabo Pulmo a proposed resort threatens to bury a pristine reef with sediment, sewage, and industrial waste. Worse, a desalination plant needed to supply water to the complex will change the marine ecosystem by making the ocean too salty.

To read about our solutions to these two development challenges, please visit our new campaign site. We hope you will consider a donation to launch our fundraising efforts to save corals reefs in Mexico!

We greatly appreciate your donation to our campaign for the coral projection Guide. Your funding has helped us educate government officials, provide media representatives with data, and effectively utilize the Guide to project corals in Latin America!

Thank you so much for being an advocate for this important work!

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AIDA's International Corals Report
AIDA's International Corals Report

In the crystalline waters of the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Nicaragua, hundreds of species of brightly colored fish dart gently amid lush and healthy corals. They live in the highly productive reef system that surrounds the tropical islands of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, where light blue waters lap in to verdant mangrove swamps, seagrass beds and white sand beaches.

This is UNESCO’s Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, a protected expanse of marine territory that forms Colombia’s only island department.

Roughly one year ago, the idyllic tropical scene was suddenly, and nearly fatally, interrupted. On an otherwise normal day, a Panamanian transport vessel ran aground on the reserve’s coast. The ship was fractured in four; a thousand gallons of diesel and more than a thousand tons of toxic construction material threatened to leach out into the sea. Authorities on both sides were slow to offer resources to remove the ship. Media reports called it a ticking time bomb.

We knew we had to apply pressure to get the Colombian government to act. First and foremost, the reef had to be saved.

Informed by the authorship of our corals report, International Regulatory Best Practices for Coral Reef Protection, we submitted comments and an official request to authorities to move the boat. We did so alongside our partner at the Consultorio Juridico de la Universidad del Norte, effectively contributing to national pressure to deal with the dangerous situation. Soon thereafter, Colombian authorities contacted the ship’s owner and requested its removal from the protected area. 

Taking action in the face of such an urgent environmental threat is just one way that AIDA’s marine attorneys have applied the tools and recommendations offered in our corals report. As an organization, we’re committed to distributing the valuable information it contains and educating those working with corals of the best ways they can conserve them.

We have also used our guide to improve the management plan for Cabo Pulmo, Mexico, a rich marine ecosystem that we have been working to protect from irresponsible development since 2007. Suggestions gleaned from the guide have steered the government’s management plan and given them new insight into laws and practices that can help to maintain the health and integrity of their coral ecosystem.

In Costa Rica, we have been working alongside partners at Conservation International to educate decision makers on the need for a legal tool that guarantees the conservation of the country’s reefs. In a nation where 93 percent of the reefs are in danger, taking official action to ensure their protection is an urgent and necessary step forward. By meeting with government officials, we have been able to encourage the process and provide references to legal and regulatory tools that would enable the implementation of stronger protections for Costa Rica’s sensitive coral resources. 

AIDA’s marine team will continue to promote and distribute the corals guide to decision makers and academics in the region, as well as to international agencies such as the United Nations Environment Programme. Our attorneys have utilized international conventions—such as the recent Meeting of Signatories of the Memorandum of Understanding of Migratory Sharks, held this past February in Costa Rica—as an opportunity to get the guide into the hands of decision makers from governments around the world. 

Our attorneys have been relentless, and will continue to be so, until we’ve reached the hands and hearts of government authorities, conservationists and decision makers throughout the region. To date, we’ve reached upwards of 50 decision makers in governments through the region, as well as many contacts in NGOs and academia.

With your help, we can continue our mission to raise awareness throughout Latin America about the benefits corals provide, as well as concern about the threats they face and the urgency with which we must act to protect them.

Your support means we can attend international conventions to spread our message; take meetings with decision makers to educate them of the tools at their disposal; write briefs and opinions to influence local and national policy.

Your support means our attorneys can do their jobs, thus enabling the coral reefs to safely and healthily do theirs. They protect our shores, shelter the countless creatures of the sea, and create a more productive and beneficial marine world for us all. 


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Veracruz Reef, Credit: Manuel Victoria
Veracruz Reef, Credit: Manuel Victoria

When I tell people I live in Costa Rica, they imagine my home on the beach, facing the ocean, waves rolling in from the endless horizon. In reality, I live in a city like any other, one hour from the Pacific coast and three from the Caribbean.

Although my life hasn’t exactly been a tropical vision of paradise, I’ve been in love with the ocean since I was a girl. That love has only deepened the more I came to understand the mysteries of the sea, the services it provides and the marvelous creatures that call it home.

Of all the species that live in the sea, corals are among my favorites. Thanks to my career at AIDA, I have been able to both learn a lot about these tiny animals, and work to identify effective ways to protect them.

Many people don’t know about the incredible connection we have with corals. It’s a connection that exists even for those of us who don’t have the privilege of living by the sea. 

What are corals and what do they do for us? 

Although at first glance they look like large rocks, corals are actually living organisms with an exoskeleton. They have a mutualistic relationship with photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae, which are responsible for their brilliant coloring. The algae use sunlight to produce food and some of the nutrients that the corals need to survive. In exchange, the corals provide the algae with a protected environment.

A group of corals forms a reef, a highly biodiverse ecosystem, widely known as the jungle of the sea. Coral reefs provide many benefits to humanity:

  • Reefs are spawning grounds for many varieties of fish—the fish you eat are linked, in one way or another, with a coral reef.
  • Reefs are natural shock absorbers that protect coastal communities from storms and hurricanes.
  • Reefs are tourist destinations that generate important national income: one square kilometer of coral reef provides services valued at up to $600,000 a year, according to the United Nations.

The bad news is that these benefits could be lost if we don’t act now to preserve coral reefs. It’s estimated that 60 percent of the world’s coral reefs could disappear by 2030. That would mean that our children may enjoy them for only a brief time, and our grandchildren may know them only from photographs in their science and history books. 

What are the threats and how can we help fight them? 

  • Unsustainable fishing methods, such as trawling, which destroys any coral in its path. Before eating or buying seafood, it’s worth asking how it was fished. Becoming responsible consumers is our right and our obligation. We must demand in restaurants and grocery stores products that have been taken from the sea without harming corals or other species of importance.
  • Inadequate tourism practices harm coral reefs. When exploring the wondrous corals reefs, snorkelers and divers must avoid touching or stepping on them at all costs. We must remember that corals are living creatures, which our weight and the equipment we carry into the sea can harm. When we buy souvenirs like necklaces and crafts, we should reject products that use or incorporate corals. We do not need corals to decorate our homes or bodies, but the ocean needs them to maintain its equilibrium.
  • A recent study found that, when they come into contact with the ocean, sunscreens that contain oxybenzone (a chemical compound) could, even in low concentrations, damage the DNA of corals, deforming them and eventually causing death.  We must avoid using this type of product, and instead use safe sunscreens and clothing to protect us from the sun. Here is a list of sunscreens that are safe for corals.
  • The fertilizers used on crops leech into rivers and eventually reach the ocean, severely harming corals by increasing the production of algae, which in large quantities block the sun and prevent corals from receiving nutrients. We must opt for fruits and vegetables grown organically and demand responsible agriculture.  

Improving legal protection of coral reefs

Another important way of saving coral reefs is by seeking change in our countries. We must urge our governments to improve the laws protecting these sensitive creatures.

Our recently published A Guide to International Regulatory Best Practices for Coral Reef Protection contains ideas to strengthen laws and promote the conservation of coral reefs around the world. So far we have used the Guide to improve policy by:

  • Distributing it to university and other academic professionals in Colombia to support a case to project the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve which is a UNESCO-protected site that is dense with coral.
  • Sharing it with policy-makers in Mexico and Costa Rica.
  • Providing legal expertise on cases in Cabo Pulmo and Veracruz, Mexico

Corals play a more important role in our lives than many of us understand, and their future is in our hands.  We must save coral reefs to ensure that our children and our grandchildren can enjoy the many benefits of these wondrous creatures.

Thank you for your generousity in supporting our efforts!  We greatly appreciate your support!

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A hawksbill turtle. | Credit: Daniel Kwok
A hawksbill turtle. | Credit: Daniel Kwok

Every few years, hundreds of hawksbill and kemp’s ridley turtles glide through the warm, shallow waters of the Veracruz Reef System.  There they swim and feed amongst the brightly colored corals, which stretch for miles through the Gulf of Mexico.  When the sun goes down, many of the females make their way back to the very beach from which they hatched, to lay the eggs of the next generation.

This ritual has happened for centuries, as the migratory turtles move and feed and breed their way through the Gulf and Caribbean waters. But it’s happening less and less. As their critical habitats are threatened by reckless human activities and a changing climate, the population of hawksbill turtles in the region has declined by 95 percent, making them a critically endangered species.

The hawksbill (eretmochelys imbricata) and Kemps’ ridley (lepidochelys kempii) turtles are just two of the five neotropical species of sea turtle that spend a portion of their migratory cycles along the coast of Veracruz, Mexico, and within the confines its reefs.

Now, these turtles are facing a new threat – the expansion of the Port of Veracruz.

To raise awareness of the risk posed to these threatened species, AIDA and the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA) on September 22 presented a petition before the Scientific Committee of the Inter-American Sea Turtle Convention (IAC), under which Mexico has obligations to protect turtles found within its borders. In the petition, we detailed the direct and indirect impacts that the expansion of the Port would have on the various turtle species and their habitat.

We also mentioned that in the project’s environmental impact statement, the Veracruz Port Authority stated that the port expansion “will never have a direct effect on protected species.” They therefore failed to present protection measures for sea turtles, particularly the hawksbill, which is listed as threatened under both the Sea Turtle Convention and Mexican law. 

Our petition before the IAC requests they take measures to understand the threat and urge Mexico to act, including: conduct an investigation on the impacts the port expansion would have on the turtles and their habitat; conduct a site visit; make recommendations for the protection of the species and their habitat; and urge the Mexican government to apply precautionary measures while evaluating potential environmental impacts on the turtles.

Also on September 22, alongside CEMDA, we delivered more than 36,000 signatures from a citizens’ petition urging the Secretariat of Environment & Natural Resources to revoke the environmental authorization granted for the Port’s expansion. The petition argues that the expansion project would put in danger two of Mexico’s natural treasures – the Veracruz Reef System and Los Tuxtlas Reserve, a natural protected area from which basaltic rock for the construction would be extracted.

The permit has been approved without considering the severe environmental impacts it would have on the unique ecosystems of the region and the creatures that call them home. The Mexican government has thus violated national and international obligations to conserve biodiversity and protect its natural heritage. 

As long as the Port of Veracruz expansion project threatens sensitive species and ecosystems, we will continue to advocate through national and international bodies to stop it.  

Thank you for supporting our work to defend the health and biodiversity of the Veracruz Reef System!


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Organization Information

Asociacion Interamericana Para La Defensa Del Ambiente (AIDA)

Location: San Francisco, CA - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @AIDAorg
Project Leader:
Haydee Rodriguez
San Jose, Costa Rica

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