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Save Mexico's Coral Reefs!

by Asociacion Interamericana Para La Defensa Del Ambiente (AIDA)
Save Mexico's Coral Reefs!
Save Mexico's Coral Reefs!
Save Mexico's Coral Reefs!
Save Mexico's Coral Reefs!
Save Mexico's Coral Reefs!
Save Mexico's Coral Reefs!
Save Mexico's Coral Reefs!
Save Mexico's Coral Reefs!
Save Mexico's Coral Reefs!
Save Mexico's Coral Reefs!
Save Mexico's Coral Reefs!
Save Mexico's Coral Reefs!
Save Mexico's Coral Reefs!
Save Mexico's Coral Reefs!
Oliver Cook, AIDA
Oliver Cook, AIDA

Earlier this year, as part of AIDA’s role in the Cabo Pulmo Vivo Coalition, we participated in the process of appointing the new coordinator of the Coalition. We helped with the revision of applications and provided assistance in the selection of the final candidate, who joined the Coalition in April brining a strong background in biological sciences.

The Coalition is dedicated to protect the Cabo Pulmo Reef National Park, a 20,000-year-old ecological treasure in Baja California Sur, Mexico, that hosts many of the 800 marine species in the Sea of Cortez. Developers repeatedly try to build enormous tourist resorts at Cabo Pulmo and the coral reefs there are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of these poorly planned development. AIDA has been instrumental in defeating these projects, and continues to work alongside local partners to protect this critical marine area.

During April and May we played an active role in the integration process of the new coordinator, working in collaboration with him to review and update the Coalition’s guidelines and present the work and activities that AIDA has been doing to strengthen the Coalition.

Due to the current pandemic most of the work has been transferred to virtual platforms. In order to continue the ongoing activities and strategy, we’ve had our coordination meetings online instead of in person, ensuring not only the safety of all participants but also the ability to continue the work and, from the AIDA team, being able to provide the much needed legal and scientific assistance to the local communities and partners.

One of the key pieces of the work that is being coordinated during these meetings is the follow up of a letter and report on the current situation in Cabo Pulmo National Park that was sent in January to the UNESCO, RAMSAR and IUCN authorities. At the end of April, we received the response from the Ramsar Convention's Councilor for the Americas who stated that the Mexican authorities had been informed of the documents submitted by the Coalition.

AIDA is coordinating the follow up meetings and we requested a hearing with the Ramsar Convention's focal point in Mexico, the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), to continue the request of revision of the documents.

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Attendees to the organized Forum
Attendees to the organized Forum

In November in the city of La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico, along with our partners from the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California Sur and the NGO Eco-Azul Terrestre, we organized a Forum where members and representatives of research centers, academia, civil society organizations, government and fishermen communities participated in a workshop on the Importance of Herbivorous Fish in Reef Ecosystems of Northwest Mexico.

During the forum, presenters shared information on herbivorous fish and the ecological role they play in the reefs of the Gulf of California. In the region of the American tropics there is a need to improve the regulation of coral reefs and associated species necessary for ecosystem balance. At the present, due to impacts globally (bleaching, ocean acidification) and regionally (physical damage, overfishing, pollution, invasive species, lack of regulation, cumulative and synergistic impacts), coral reefs are classified into critical habitats that could be reduced by 70-90% with the increase of 1.5° C and disappear if we reach 2° C of sea surface temperature.

With this is mind, we analyzed biological monitoring data and fishing capture data with the objective of identifying the best legal tools for the protection and management of essential species for coral reefs communities.

During the forum, representing AIDA, I presented a report that emphasizes the general obligations of countries that are part of international treaties such as the Convention on the Sea, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the American Convention on Human Rights, the World Heritage Sites and Ramsar Conventions. We talk about the needs for regional regulation, comparative law cases and advocacy actions for regulatory improvement in various countries in the region.

It should be noted that the situation facing the Mexican Caribbean region is urgent due to the various impacts that are cumulatively generating degradation effects, resulting in greater loss and a higher number of diseases associated with coral bleaching. We explain how the work of AIDA's attorneys in providing international legal arguments and strategy with regional and local organizations was successful, and as a result, Mexico as a country recently included 10 species of parrot fish in its Official Mexican Standard 059 for the protection of species at risk for the Wider Caribbean region, and that in terms of management, fishing is prohibited within the Mexican Caribbean Biosphere Reserve.

All attendees participated in round tables, question and answer sessions, and discussions on cases and recommendations for next steps. There were multiple objectives defined that need to be addressed, particular needs by area and existing tools that can be used to improve the regulation of herbivorous fish in the region.

Finally, all agreed to continue working towards an outcome on regulatory and sustainable management that promotes the conservation of reef species and habitats in the region. A preliminary report on the work and advances of the group will be produce in mid-2020.

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Stoplight parrotfish intermediate - Marisol Rueda
Stoplight parrotfish intermediate - Marisol Rueda

Parrotfish are vital to the health of coral reefs, and the Mexican State has an obligation to protect them. After a year of arduous work and collaboration with organizations and local actors, the letter sent to the government where AIDA outlined the international obligations Mexico has to preserve its coral reefs, requesting that ten species of parrotfish be included in the nation’s list of protected species, resulted in an official ruling to legally protect those species.

Using arguments based in international law and knowledge of environmental treaties, in October 2018, AIDA requested that the Mexican government include ten species of parrotfish in the national registry of protected species, under Official Mexican Law 059, which is currently being updated.

AIDA made the request through a letter to the National Advisory Committee for the Normalization of the Environment and Natural Resources, in support of a proposal the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative made in September in coordination with Casa Wayuu, the Kanan Kay Alliance and the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA).

The species of parrotfish we are trying to protect play a vital role in the survival of coral reefs because they feed on algae which otherwise deprive the coral of light and oxygen. Populations of these fish have declined drastically due to habitat degradation, pollution and climate change. Studies done by the Health Reefs Initiative, among others, have shown that 60 percent of the coral reefs in the Mexican Caribbean are in either poor or critical condition.

The organizations called for the following species to be listed under some category of risk in Official Mexican Law 059: the stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride), the rainbow parrotfish (Scarus guacamaia), the blue parrotfish (Scarus coeruleus), the midnight parrotfish (Scarus coelestinus), the queen parrotfish (Scarus vetula), the princess parrotfish (Scarus taeniopterus), the striped parrotfish (Scarus iseri), the redband parrotfish (Sparisoma aurofrenatum), the redtail parrotfish (Sparisoma rubipinne), and the yellowtail parrotfish (Sparisoma chrysopterum).

The letter outlined the treaties and conventions that oblige the Mexican State to adequately fight threats to species requiring special protection—species like herbivorous fish, which are vital for the health of Caribbean reefs and other marine ecosystems.

These agreements include the Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment in the Wider Caribbean Region (also known as the Cartagena Convention), the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Ramsar Convention, the Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, the Tulum Declaration, and the International Coral Reef Initiative.

The letter also mentioned the Advisory Opinion on human rights and the environment issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In that decision, the Court strengthens States’ obligations to protect human rights and acknowledges the close relationship that has with environmental protection.

Despite serving as fish hatcheries and natural barriers against hurricanes—among other key functions—coral reefs are very fragile and vulnerable to climate change, the consequences of which include ocean acidification, sea level rise and algal blooms. The latter are caused by untreated or inadequately treated wastewater being pumped into the Caribbean, and other forms of marine pollution.

“The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the warming of the planet’s average temperature by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius would result in the destruction of reefs,” explained Melina Soto, Mexico coordinator for the Healthy Reefs Initiative. “It is therefore urgent States adopt adequate measures to preserve coral reefs, and one way to do that is through the protection of herbivorous fish.”


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Remembering his childhood, Mario thinks of the abundance of fish, crabs and lobsters he and his father used to find while fishing, an activity that is now in decline on his island.

"There used to be so many things and today we are forbidden from fishing many things because of our irresponsibility in taking care of our resources," said Mario, who is now the leader of the San Luis Fishermen's Committee, whose members work on San Andres Island, Colombia.

San Luis is a hamlet located on the east coast of San Andres with white sandy beaches and calm waters.

I was in San Andres in August to support the dissemination of a very important resolution for the conservation of the coral ecosystems of the Colombian Caribbean.

The law prohibits the capture and sale of several species of herbivorous and omnivorous fish that cleanse the corals of algae that take away light and space, thus supporting their survival.

Disseminating and socializing these type of regulations in local communities is very important so that their inhabitants, understanding the importance of these fish for the health of the reefs and for their economies, support the actions oriented to their conservation. 

The resolution in Colombia is an important step for the protection of corals and herbivorous fish throughout the region. It recognizes the benefits of corals for fishing, tourism, pharmaceutical resources, and protection against the impacts of the climate crisis. It also recognizes the vital role several species of fish play in keeping these ecosystems healthy.

Both the resolution and the outreach we’ve been able to do in communities in San Andrés serve as examples for our work in all countries targeted in our regional plan for herbivorous fish (and thus coral) conservation. Not just Colombia and Mexico, but also Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama.

Outreach to local fishermen, and the organizations they support, allows us to positively impact public opinion and thus influence decision-making, which ideally will enable the protection of these vital fish species throughout the region.

As part of our public outreach campaign, we’ve also produced graphic aids for distribution in fishermen’s organizations, schools and community centers, so all members of coastal communities can play a role in protecting the fish that help keep their reefs healthy and bountiful.

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Blue damselfish / by damedias, Caribbean sea
Blue damselfish / by damedias, Caribbean sea

On December 7th 2018, AIDA participated in the eighth meeting of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) to the Protocol Concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) in the wider Caribbean Region. During the meeting AIDA advocated that the Committee prioritize the protection of parrotfish and other herbivores due to their integral role in maintaining the wellbeing of coral reefs. Herbivorous fish feed on macroalgae that covers coral reefs. Macroalgae growth deprives the coral of light and oxygen, therefore the absence of a healthy biomass of herbivorous fish that eat the algae and the high nutrients and contaminants runoff can cause severe damage to the marine ecosystem.  

On June 3d 2019, AIDA participated in the tenth meeting of the Contracting Parties (COP) to the SPAW Protocol in Honduras. In this meeting, the COP approved the recommendations made by STAC to urgently define the terms of reference (objectives, scope, and strategies) for parrotfish and other herbivorous fish management associated with coral reefs, seagrasses, and mangroves in the Wider Caribbean Region. This decision will help build the governance frame for regional resources in the area that encloses the second largest coral reef in the world, belonging to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea ecosystems, and could play a key role in the protection -at a regional scale- of the Wider Caribbean.

As part of the Cartagena Convention, and as one of the countries yet to ratify their participation in the protocol, Mexico’s support is critical. The countries that belong to and share the Wider Caribbean Region need to consider having reciprocal regulations to protect the ecological functions, natural resources and ecosystem services provided by the coral reef system. The Mexican shoreline encompasses a portion of the Mesoamerican reef, playing an important role in protecting marine areas, conserving biodiversity, and regulating fishing along the reef. AIDA’s Marine team believes that the systemic perspective of these measurements is an opportunity to be part of the transition and the perfect time to ratify Mexico’s presence in the Protocol, enforcing the regulation measures to manage and regulate key marine species.

The approval of these recommendations is a strong step because it will allow AIDA to diffuse environmental norms to countries within the SPAW agreement and create a broader positive change. AIDA hopes to form a communal and differentiated understanding in the greater Caribbean region that marine ecology needs to be sustained and protected. We hope to recreate results like this in the future which will allow us to guide the development of environmental standards.

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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:
Gladys Martinez
San Jose, Costa Rica
$2,712 raised of $5,000 goal
74 donations
$2,288 to go
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