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The Cabo Pulmo coral reef is safe for now

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Baja California Sur, Mexico
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Photo: A grouper fish, part of the fauna that houses the reef. Credit: Gustavo Danemann.

The Mexican government has announced its decision to cancel the proposed Cabo Cortes resort development in Baja California Sur, thus advancing protections for the internationally protected Cabo Pulmo reef. Acting on a legal challenge against the conditionally approved environmental impact assessment, the government decided to withdraw the environmental permit for the project. Mexico's President Calderón on June 15, 2012 affirmed that "the project will not go forward".

The Cabo Pulmo coral reef is an ecological treasure. Nestled at the southern tip of Baja California Sur, the 20,000-year-old reef is one of just three of its kind on the Pacific coast of the Americas. Many of the 800 species of marine animals in the Sea of Cortez seek refuge in the reef, and studies have shown that it plays a critical role in the greater ecology of the region.

Developers are planning significant tourism development in the region and had proposed a massive projects near the reef: Cabo Cortes, and El Anhelo. These proposed resorts would create 34,000 hotel rooms, three marinas, and at least three golf courses. Such expanded tourism would overwhelm the sparsely populated area with an influx of tourists and pollute the environment. Mexico's decision to cancel the conditional approval for the Cabo Cortes project is a significant step toward safeguarding the precious Cabo Pulmo reef.

Coral reef systems are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of coastal development. Increased sedimentation from construction and road building can cause corals to suffocate and die. Once built, sewage runoff from resorts can cause abnormal algae growth, which blocks off sunlight and chokes reefs by shutting down photosynthesis.

In healthy ecosystems, fish buffer these types of fluctuations by eating the excess algae, but extensive tourism can dismantle this control mechanism as well: higher levels of sport fishing and a soaring demand for seafood depletes local fish populations and impairs the natural ability of reefs to adapt.

Meanwhile, new marinas bring increased boat traffic and sport diving to coastal waters, causing added physical stress and exacerbating the problem of illegal specimen collection. Finally, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides used to maintain golf courses often contaminate waterways and further disrupt the delicate ecology of coral reefs.

The timing of Mexico's action is critical. Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are causing ocean waters to become more acidic, interfering with the calcium formation process that builds and maintains reefs like Cabo Pulmo. As ocean acidification slows coral formation, it becomes urgent to shield reefs from the types of preventable and unnecessary stressors that would be introduced by resorts such as the proposed projects. By acting to cancel the Cabo Cortes development, the Mexican government has given Cabo Pulmo much needed protection and enhanced the reef's ability to stave off the certain impacts of ocean acidification. 

This isn't the first time Cabo Pulmo has faced a severe threat. The reef almost collapsed in the 1980s due to over-fishing, but the Mexican government intervened in 1995 and declared the reef a national park. Since then, the reef has grown and the surrounding ecosystem has thrived. Unfortunately, Mexico’s environmental laws – and its authorities in charge of ensuring compliance with those laws – may be too weak to protect the reef at this time.

When a hastily prepared, inadequate environmental impact assessment (EIA) was presented in 2007, a coalition of organizations led by the Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA) and Defensa Ambiental del Noroeste (DAN) filed suit to force the government to protect the reef.  When the projects were nevertheless approved, the organizations once again appealed. In the end, beseeched by millions of petitioners worldwide to save Cabo Pulmo, President Calderón and the Mexican authorities decided to listen to reason and protect the reef for future generations. 

Recognizing the opportunity to strengthen the opposition by incorporating international legal strategies, AIDA worked with local communities and organizations in Baja California Sur to fight the proposed resorts.

In February of 2011, AIDA helped file a petition before the Secretariat of the Ramsar Convention (SRC) and the UNESCOS's Word Heritage Committee —international conservation treaties— asking both the Secretariat and the Committee to help conduct an independent assessment of the proposed projects and recommend specific measures to protect Cabo Pulmo. We also helped organize a mission by international authorities who visited the reef and issued recommendations to the Mexican government. Their report (Spanish only) concluded, among other things, that the Mexican authorities did not consider the indirect and cumulative impacts of Cabo Cortés when they authorized the project.

We are pleased that President Calderón take decision to protect the Cabo Pulmo reef and the splendid marine biodiversity it supports. For the moment, the reef is safe from Cabo Cortés. But other tourism projects still pose a threat to this fragile ecosystem. 

AIDA and Earthjustice, in representation of 10 local and international organizations and by means of a Citizen Petition to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), call on the Mexican government to apply its own environmental legislation during the environmental impact assessment of mega-resorts in the Gulf of California.

 

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