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Effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas in Mexico – the Actam Chuleb Example

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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By Alanna Waldman

As our world population continues to grow, it implies a higher demand for resources. Whether these resources are food, water, or land, the effect of this growth on our environment is often detrimental to biodiversity and the health of our natural ecosystems, especially our marine ecosystems. The ocean covers 71% of the earth’s surface and therefore our actions on land and in the water have a massive impact on marine ecosystems worldwide. Trade, fishing, tourism, and transportation all impact our oceans and if we do not protect marine resources, future generations will face limited fish stocks, polluted waters, and a loss of biodiversity.

The implementation of marine protected areas (MPAs) attempts to reduce the risk of destroying our marine ecosystems by reducing fishing pressure and other marine impacts. MPAs are marine areas that have usually been altered by humans and are in need of restoration and conservation. MPAs serve to protect delicate ecosystems so that they remain productive and healthy, maintain areas of biodiversity and genetic variation within the flora and fauna populations, ensure that endangered, threatened, or rare species are protected, promote sustainable use of the area, protect indigenous areas for cultural importance, and endorse research to preserve the area using the best scientific knowledge (DOF 2007).

In Mexico, many areas have management policies in place for the protection of the country’s environment, including coastal waters. With the high volume of inhabitants as well as tourists visiting the country, there is a need to protect the Mexican coastal areas from severe human impact. But are these MPAs actually effective in preserving biodiversity and resources? When trying to regulate an area such as the ocean, enforcing the laws must be a collaborative effort. However, this is especially difficult in Mexico where cooperation between communities, local governments, and state governments is frequently lacking.

With a coastline of 11,500 km (~7,100 miles), the variation in marine ecosystems in Mexico ranges from wetlands, mangrove forests, and barrier islands to dunes, coral reefs, sea grass meadows, and offshore islands (Inegi 2007, Vidal 2005). Within each of these ecosystems exists a unique biodiversity of flora and fauna that provide valuable environmental and economic benefits for Mexico and its inhabitants. The oil industry, tourism, agriculture, urban development, fisheries, and mining, however, can all negatively affect this precious marine life (Fraga 2008). To combat this damage, Mexico created a piece of legislation for environmental regulation called the General Law for Ecological Equilibrium and Environmental Protection (LGEEPA). Balancing sustainability with economic gain and preserving the environment, along with conservation and protection of biodiversity are the main goals of this law.

LGEEPA also provides the framework to create MPAs in Mexico. Since 1962, Mexico has been protecting marine and coastal areas by signing many international agreements including CITES, UNCLOS, MARPOL, and Ramsar to name a few. But with thirty-one states comprising Mexico and each with their own individual environmental laws and legal mechanisms (Bezaury-Creel 2005), decisions and agreements on how to manage and handle the environment, specifically the marine and coastal areas, of Mexico can be inconsistent and lead to poor and ineffective management.

For a managed area to be successful all parts of the government need to cooperate with one another and the government needs to be centralized on environmental issues for the best protection and results. One reason for Mexico’s difficulty in creating effective MPAs is that they do not yet have an integrated coastal management (ICM) system implemented into their regulations. ICM would streamline all of the different coastal management plans throughout the country into one consistent plan for the entire country. Because of the various governmental agencies in Mexico, however, ICM is not a top priority for the country currently.

Despite these governance challenges, Mexico has decided to stick with MPAs as a way of protecting their marine ecosystems (Rivera Arriaga 2004). Because of limited information and data on the coastal zones and limited management cooperation, ICM is not an appealing option for Mexican governments. Instead, Mexico, as of March 2007, has implemented 61 MPA’s throughout the country (Fraga 2008).

Figure 1: The above table outlines the total protected areas in Mexico, including the marine protected areas along with the total area of the protected ecosystem, both marine and terrestrial (Fraga 2008).

Figure 1: The above table outlines the total protected areas in Mexico, including the marine protected areas along with the total area of the protected ecosystem, both marine and terrestrial (Fraga 2008).

Unfortunately, according to a study in May 2005, only 22 of 59 MPAs had proper management plans and rules (Fraga 2008). Less than 50% of the MPAs at the time were effective or allowing the protection of the marine areas. The ineffectiveness of the MPAs can be attributed to the difficulty in implementing them. Scientists must preform extensive research on the area including social and cultural effects on the community, they must collect basic information on the area and the ecosystem, present a reason for protection, investigate the history and culture of the area, take into consideration the socioeconomic status of the area, present an overview of the land/water use, and present a management plan with information on how the MPA will be operated and managed (DOF 2007).

The Secretariat for the Environmental and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) and LGEEPA are in charge of approving new MPAs. SEMARNAT requires the approval by the state and local governments and agencies, the public and private social organizations, the indigenous people, and the educational institutions (SEMARNAT 2007). LGEEPA requires information on the precise location and boundaries of the area, the type of protection needed, a list of activities that are allowed and not allowed, a management plan, and a list of ways it will be operated, enforced, and financed (DOF 2007).

The issue of finance is one of the greatest downfalls for MPAs. Enforcement is key to the success of an MPA but without proper funds to hire personnel to patrol the area, nothing can be accomplished. A lack of management plans also makes MPAs ineffective because people will continue to use the area indiscriminately and cause degradation. Often economic interests overtake environmental interests, making MPAs a low priority for the Mexican government.

Additionally, environmentalists and locals do not always agree on one way for a marine area to be managed because environmentalists want to protect the natural value while locals of Mexico rely on the ocean for their livelihood. The ocean provides many natural resources that allow locals to live and make money and they fear that MPAs will prevent them from accessing these vital resources. The differing opinions between the environmentalists and the locals brings about the conflict of using science as a base for creating MPAs versus using traditional knowledge, or a combination of both. According to LGEEPA and SEMARNAT, they both see the importance of involving the local community, stakeholders, and indigenous people when creating MPAs because they contribute traditional knowledge about the area that scientists do not possess (Fraga 2008).

Figure 2: Table illustrates the large number of MPAs created because of traditional knowledge, showing the importance of a cultural background in forming an MPA in Mexico (Fraga 2008).

Figure 2: Table illustrates the large number of MPAs created because of traditional knowledge, showing the importance of a cultural background in forming an MPA in Mexico (Fraga 2008).

These local inhabitants are crucial to creating successful MPAs because with their knowledge they can form advisory councils which propose better management strategies based on the knowledge of their local area, they can evaluate and add onto a management plan, involve the public with conservation and restoration, express opinions on certain projects in the area, collaborate to solve emergencies in MPAs, find financial support, and promote research projects to improve the MPA (DOF 2007). The people who live in an area know best about the area and therefore should be consulted before any rules and regulations are created (Berkes 2001). Indigenous peoples thus help create more effective protected areas because their knowledge relies on the relationship between humans and their interaction with environment and how to coexist sustainably.

Actam Chuleb, a Mexican MPA created in 1997 voluntarily by the people of San Felipe to protect their fisheries, involved the local community in making decisions and creating management plans to improve their marine ecosystem, but it was only a temporary success. San Felipe is a coastal village relying heavily on ocean resources for survival. To protect the ocean, the fishing cooperative and a council called “Las Fuerzas Vivas” worked together to create this MPA. Certain weaknesses within the system, however, caused the MPA to become less effective than originally planned due to a lack of communication and information sharing between the Actam Chuleb NGO, the city of San Felipe, stakeholders, and the Secretariat of Ecology of Yucatan State.

The lack of communication arose from the divide of the fishing cooperative because after a while they wanted to regain benefits of fishing and no longer supported the MPA.  Limited information caused stakeholders to lose interest and people became unclear as to the legal framework of the MPA. The weak framework made the MPA essentially ineffective because without enforcement, people used the area as they pleased with disregard for the regulations. Lack of coordination between patrollers of the MPA and local government created ineffective law enforcement as well, furthering the failure of the MPA (Fraga 2008). Although the town tried to incorporate the entire community in decision-making and management of the MPA, a lack of communication and coordination between all the different parties led to failure.

For Mexico to create effective protected areas, they must begin to implement centralized strategies so that the communities and governments are working together under the same rules and regulations. One of the biggest weaknesses in Mexico regarding MPAs is the lack of coordination and cooperation between the different levels of government including federal, state, and municipal (Mesta 2004). Unless Mexico begins to homogenize the government and laws, using intra and inter state cooperation (Rivera-Arriaga 2004), creating an effective MPA will be difficult. One study proposes multiple solutions to Mexico’s various problems including more patrol and equipment for patrolling MPAs, more funds to pay for costs associated with MPAs, strategies to improve communication between local and state governments, modified laws and regulations and management plans (becoming more flexible) to match the current status of the areas, alternative options for locals who depend on the ocean as a resource, and better environmental education for stakeholders and the public (Fraga 2008).

If Mexico can manage to fulfill all of these requirements, especially the centralization and coordination of marine governance, then perhaps in the future an MPA will fulfill its job in protecting the natural resources, environmental services, and biodiversity of an area so that future generations can enjoy the marine luxuries that Mexico has to offer.

Author Bio: Alanna Waldman is a rising senior at the University of Southern California majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in Spanish. She is hoping to get her Ph.D. in marine biology after graduation, and loves traveling, swimming, and reading.

Works Cited:

Berkes, F, R Mahon, P McConney, R Pollnac and R Pomeroy. Managing small-scale fisheries: alternative directions and methods. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001.

Bezaury-Creel, J E. “Protected areas and coastal and ocean management in México”. Ocean and Coastal Management, Vol. 48, No. 11-12, 2005.

DOF. Ley general del equilibrio ecológico y la protección al ambiente. Diario Oficial de la Federación 28 de enero de 1988, ultima reforma publicada en el 5 de julio de 2007. México: DOF, 2007.

Fraga, Julia and Ana Jesus. Coastal and Marine Protected Areas in Mexico. India: International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, 2008.

INEGI. Información geográfica: aspectos generales del territorio Mexicano, 2007. (Accessed on 20 March 2013). http://mapserver.inegi.gob.mx/geografia/espanol/ datosgeogra/extterri/frontera.cfm?s=geo&c=920

Mesta, M E and M E Martínez. “Identificación y caracterización de conflictos en zonas marino costeras”. In E Rivera-Arriaga, G J Villalobos-Zapata, I Azuz-Adeath, F Rosado-May (eds.). El manejo costero en México, Universidad Autónoma de Campeche, SEMARNAT, CETYS-Universidad, Universidad de Quintana Roo. México: CETYS-Universidad, 2004.

Rivera-Arriaga, E and I Azuz-Adeath. “Manejo Costero en México ante los acuerdos de Johannesburgo”. In E Rivera-Arriaga, GJ Villalobos-Zapata, I Azuz-Adeath, F Rosado-May (eds.). El manejo costero en México, Universidad Autónoma de Campeche, SEMARNAT, CETYS-Universidad, Universidad de Quintana Roo. México: CETYS-Universidad, 2004.

SEMARNAT (Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales) 2007b, Programa nacional de medio ambiente y recursos naturales 2007-2012. Distrito Federal, México: SEMARNAT, 2007.

Vidal, L E. Evaluación de la eficiencia de la legislación en un ecosistema natural, un ambiente costero. Ph D thesis, Centro de Investigación y Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politecnico Nacional, Unidad Mérida, Departamento de Recursos del Mar. Mérida: Unidad Mérida, 2005.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences through the Environmental Studies Program.   This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, Lecturer Kristen Weiss, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

Previously in this series:

The 2013 Guam and Palau Expedition Begins
A New Faculty Member on the Team
An Analysis of Sargassum Horneri Ecosystem Impact
Marine Protected Areas and Catalina Island: Conserve, Maintain and Enrich
Northern Elephant Seals: Increasing Population, Decreasing Biodiversity
The Relationship Between the Economy and Tourism on Catalina Island
Guam and Palau 2013: New Recruits and New Experiences
Bringing War to the “Island of Peace” – The Fight for the Preservation of Jeju-do
Dreading the Dredging: Military Buildup on Guam and Implications for Marine Biodiversity in Apra Harbor
Is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Doing Enough?
The Status of Fisheries in China: How deep will we have to dive to find the truth?
The Philippines and Spratly Islands: A Losing Battle
The Effects of Climate Change on Coral Reef Health
The Senkaku/Diaoyu Island Dispute in the East China Sea
The UNESCO World Heritage Site Selection Process
Before and After the Storm: The Impacts of Typhoon Bopha on Palauan Reefs
An interconnected environment and economy- Shark tourism in Palau
A Persistent Case of Diabetes Mellitus in Guam
Homo Denisova and Homo Floresiensis in Asia and the South Pacific

About the Author: David Ginsburg is a Lecturer in the Environmental Studies Program in the University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is co-instructor of the Guam and Palau Program, which offers hands-on learning and research experience for undergraduates interested in studying topics focused on integrated ecosystem management issues. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Ginsburg serves as the coordinator of the Environmental Studies master’s degree program and oversees directed student research projects in the field.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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