Designing an Effective MPA For Multi-Country Mesoamerican Reef



Caribbean coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras

The challenge

Stretching for 625 miles along the coastline of Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR) is the second largest barrier reef in the world. It encompasses a rich mosaic of coastal wetlands, lagoons, mangrove, seagrasses, sandy cays and a common structure, the coral reefs. These ecosystems host more that 500 fish species, 60 coral species, 350 mollusk and other marine mammals, algae and seagrasses. It is home to critically endangered species, like the largest population of manatees in the Western Caribbean, saltwater crocodile, sea turtle (green, hawksbill and loggerhead), Nassau and Goliath grouper, and the largest aggregation of whale sharks in the world.

An estimated 2 million people are directly woven into the fabric of the MAR’s rich coastal environments, highly dependent on its healthy ecosystems for food, water, livelihoods and income. Thousands of artisanal (small-scale) fishermen and the fishing industry in Honduras depend on the MAR’s fisheries, including lobster, conch, snapper and grouper. Its marine and coastal ecosystems provide the foundation for the region’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry, near US$5 billion per year, spent by more than 8 million tourist and 3 million cruise visitors.

Climate change is heightening the value of marine and coastal ecosystems, which provide valuable services for fisheries, tourism and water quality, but most importantly, under future climate change scenarios, beach stabilization and reduced vulnerability from sea level rise and stronger tropical storms. UNAM´s monitoring stations in Puerto Morelos demonstrated that during Hurricane Wilma reef barriers reduced the wave energy at least six times before hitting the coastline, converting 12 meter height waves in 2 meters height. Moreover, mangroves and seagrasses ecosystems are important carbon sinks that are essential to maintain or restore. One hectare of coral reef can provide goods and environmental services worth at least US$ 130,000, and US$ 50,000 of those derived from reduced vulnerability in the face of climate change.

Cayos Cochinos, Honduras. Photo © Stephanie Wear/TNCopens IMAGE file

Cayos Cochinos, Honduras. Photo © Stephanie Wear/TNC

The main threats affecting the MAR are overfishing, pollution from inland and coastal settlements, runoff from agriculture, sedimentation, coastal ecosystems conversion due to coastal development and inappropriate tourism practices. Climate change driven stressors, such as increased sea water temperature, sea level rise, stronger storms and sea water acidification, are pushing ecosystems to their limits and affecting their capacity to sustain human use and pressure. As a result, conserving marine ecosystems and addressing climate change impacts on human communities have irrefutably become the same goal.

Actions taken

The Nature Conservancy’s conservation goals in the Mesoamerican Reef are to:

  1. Complete a conservation area network for the Mesoamerican Reef
  2. Create permanent finance mechanisms that cover the basic management costs of MPAs
  3. Establish a network of sanctuaries for fish stocking/repopulation no-take zones, and fisheries management systems to sustain artisanal fisheries and healthy ecosystems
  4. Develop regulations, incentives and land-use zoning mechanisms to address coastal development
  5. Promote ecosystems based adaptation

To reach these goals, TNC works within the following strategies:

Establish mechanisms, plans and policies for successful ecosystem based adaptation to climate change.
This includes social and ecological vulnerability analyses to develop appropriate adaptation strategies, as well as economic analyses to assess alternative scenarios based on climate change adapted coastal models. TNC will also work with the four country governments and key stakeholders to support the development of the official Mesoamerican Reef Agenda for Conservation and Adaptation for Climate Change.

Promote low impact coastal development.
Based on experience in Mexico, TNC will catalyze the organization of an alliance with concerned private investors and buyers which will promote principles, concepts and practices among the private sector as well as influence governments in other MAR countries. This strategy also includes providing support to municipal, state or national land use zoning mechanisms to ensure the incorporation of climate change considerations.

Promote an effective network of conservation areas.
In coordination with TNC, government agencies, universities and NGO’s conducted an ecoregional assessment of the area that identified a network of 31 conservation areas. The assessment incorporated the resilience principles. Most conservation areas are already under a protected areas designation; however, there are important gaps (600,000 ha) that must be filled to complete and maintain a connected and functional network (2,3 million ha). To complete the gaps identified in the ecoregional plan and add 500,000 hectares in the conservation areas network, TNC will conduct national policy work around the critical areas of Northern Cozumel, Xamanha, Mahahual, and Isla Mujeres wetlands, Central Belize and Turneffe, Omoa and Trujilo.In 2010, the largest MPA in the MAR (684,000 ha) was created by the Honduran government. TNC will support the effectiveness of the new MPA by conducting vulnerability analysis, adaptation strategies and information for the management plan.A key element of this strategy is the declaration of no-take zones within the conservation area network. The goal is the addition of 20 new no-take zones by 2014. This network of marine protected areas and no-take zones will protect at least 80 percent of the 38 validated fish spawning aggregation sites (SPAGs) and 60 percent of the potential SPAGs. TNC will work towards the goal by securing governance and political commitment to establishing fishing refuges and supporting mechanisms. The development of fishing refuges strategies for Quintana Roo, Belize and Honduras are currently underway. A final component of this strategy is the design and management of fish banks which requires a network of community managers and experts to coordinate and disseminate the process.

Develop long term financial mechanisms to sustain conservation and low impact developments.
To effectively fund and manage the conservation network, one new sustainable financing mechanism for each country will be developed (e.g. ecosystem services fee through diving, spearfishing, etc., or airport departure fees).  For example, in Belize the Belize Reef for Life mechanism was developed. TNC, Oak Foundation, a multilateral bank and the Belize Government worked together to form an agreement in which the government commits to key conservation actions and a capital fund of US$ 100 million is established to support climate change adaptation and conservation activities in coastal and marine areas. Commitments from the Belize Government will ensure the accomplishment of the aforementioned objectives and strategies, and will be achieve with the support form TNC and the capital fund.

Lessons learned and recommendations

  • To overcome the challenge of working on a multi-country region, effort is made to regularly remind stakeholders and partners to see beyond their site and country vision, and identify regional conservation priorities and approaches.
  • Coordinating efforts with partners at the site, at the national and regional level, can allow joint forces to achieve efforts like the rapid reef assessment and the ecoregional assessment that otherwise would not have been achievable independently.
  • A portfolio of priority conservation sites should identify areas within MPAs, but most importantly, should include areas outside protected areas that need urgent attention.
  • A threats analysis can identify the most important threats, and develops strategies to face such challenges.
  • A region-wide rapid reef assessment can advance understanding of habitat representation and replication, and preliminarily identify resilient reef sites.

Funding summary

opens in a new windowThe Summit Foundation
The Oak Foundation
USAID Marine Aquatic Resources and Economic Alternatives (MAREA)

Lead organizations

opens in a new windowThe Nature Conservancy, Latin Americaopens XML file


Amigos de Sian Ka’an, México
Belize Audubon Society, Belize
BICA – UTILA, Honduras
CBM / SAM / MARN, Guatemala
Centro Ecológico Akumal, México
CINDAQ, México
CINVESTAV-IPN Unidad Mérida, México
Comunidad y Biodiversidad, COBI, México
CONANP, México
CONAP, Guatemala
Cuerpos de Conservación Omoa, Honduras
DAPVS / SERNA, Honduras
DIBIO / SERNA, Honduras
ECOSUR Unidad Chetumal, México
Environmental Defense
Fisheries Department, Government of Belize
Fondo SAM
Fundación Cayos Cochinos, Honduras
FUNDAECO, Guatemala
Fundary, Guatemala
Healthy Reef for Healthy People Initiative
PRONATURA, Península de Yucatán, México
Sandy Bay & West End Marine Park, Honduras
SEA, Belize
TIDE, Belize
UNIPESCA, Guatemala
Wildlife Conservation Society
World Wildlife Fund


opens in a new windowCommunities, Economy and Reefs at Risk, the Mesoamerican Reef in Face of Climate Changeopens PDF file

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