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October 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Dying Coral Closes Much of Cozumel Diving

and both the reefs and the jobs are on the line

from the October, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Cozumel Reefs and the restricted zone (in red)

Cozumel's reefs are under severe danger from the rapidly progressing white band disease, and beginning October 7, the southern part of the Cozumel Marine Park will be closed until further notice, seriously limiting where dive boats can go.

The closure has sparked tourism operators to protest outside the Cozumel offices of the National Protected Areas Commission (Conanp) in San Miguel, claiming that 500 families will lose their sole source of income.

But in the mind of researchers and Conanp, the fast spreading disease is out of control, not only in Cozumel but throughout the Caribbean, and if something is not done quickly, most of the coral will be permanently destroyed in just a few years. This is not coral bleaching, from which many corals recovers, but a far more lethal disease.

The areas where most diving in Cozumel occurs -- from Palancar Gardens (on Cozumel's southwest quadrant) to Maracaibo, and Playa Bosh in the extreme southeast (including dive sites like Colombia, Punta Sur, and Chun Chacab Reef) will be closed so government scientists may investigate the causes of 'white syndrome' affecting hard corals there and gauge the amount and effect of pollution, especially from the large hotels.

Local dive operators say they can visit Barracuda Reef on the extreme northwest coast and popular sites like the wreck of the C-53, Paraíso, Tormentos Reef, San Francisco Reef, Santa Rosa, El Cedral, and Punta Delila on the west coast. The harder to reach more northern and eastern sites -- from El Mirador on the exposed east coast to Baja de Molas at the most northerly point -- will be open, but these are best for experienced divers who can tolerate lengthy boat journeys in possibly rougher water and handle tough currents when they arise.

Different from coral bleaching due to higher water temperatures, white syndrome (Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease) is thought to be a bacterial infection and starts when the coral polyps expel the algae on which they feed that live in their tissues; the tissues then disconnect from the coral skeleton, and the coral whitens and dies. Whatever causes this is apparently spread to other coral colonies by contact. Currents can carry infected coral, fish can spread it, perhaps even a diver, but the effect of divers can only be negligible. Higher ocean temperatures stress coral, but researchers believe other human-based factors are the basis: city sewage, pollution from hotels and cruise ships (including bilge and ballast water), agricultural runoff and gasoline from boat engines are under consideration.

And the threat is immediate and real: about 40 percent of Cozumel's coral in infected and up to 30 percent elsewhere in the Caribbean, Florida included.

Many dive operators in Cozumel have expressed their displeasure with Undercurrent for informing its readers about the closure - we suggested that if you are contemplating heading to Cozumel you may want to get more information before you sign up - but unless the disease is stopped, these dive operators may forever be out of business. Furthermore, Undercurrent's loyalty is to our subscribers - not to the industry - and to our oceans, which much be protected.

Some believe that the dive operators themselves have responsibility in this matter. Our unimpeachable source in Cozumel, a ranking member of the dive community (whom we keep anonymous), says:

"Of course they are [displeased]. They've been abusing the marine park for years, getting away with not paying their dues, letting divers wear gloves to hold on to the coral while shooting photographs so as to not lose clients, not acting on reports about dive employees who allow clients to touch and kick everything so as not to 'antagonize them and lose their tips," and renting unlicensed dive boats for half the going rate, thus increasing enormously the number of divers in the park at any one time.

"It's Mexico, and anything goes: Not only do the inspectors and the director of the marine park get a kickback when some infraction is so obvious that they cannot sweep it under the carpet, but they issue derisory sanctions. [People] have complained to the previous director about three boats from the same dive shop that hadn't been buying bracelets for at least three years, and nothing happened. It still goes on today. To the business people here, the problem isn't how they contribute to ruining the reefs, but that others spread the news."

The owner of a major dive operation, a favorite of Undercurrent readers, sees a far bigger problem: the over development and lack of sewage treatment in the south of Cozumel. The problem is mainly north of Palancar beach where no sewage treatment is given by the big money-backed resorts. There must now be 30-40 such places. For instance, at Palancar Beach resort we suggest that our divers don't go in the water as we have seen fecal matter and toilet paper floating around. The big resorts in the south just pump there sewage down 50 feet then let the underground rivers carry out to the sea.

"So why close the southern sites that have little disease at this time. My guess it is just politics of the wealthy owners of the southern resorts to show that without divers there is minimal disease -- which is already the situation with divers there! Those owners are the island elite who don't want to fix the problem for their bottom line. The answer would be to build a common modern sewage treatment plant in the south and maybe pay for it by a local tax to those that cause the problem... but money and politics go together in Mexico and they would rather sacrifice the thousands who are employed in the dive industry than provide a reasonable fix."

Regardless of the cause, the problem is real, so if you have plans to go to Cozumel - or are considering it -- contact your dive operator for more information about where you can dive. Also keep in mind, that the disease has no park boundaries. Human activity seems to be the source, and we all have a responsibility to protect our reefs and our oceans.

-- Ben Davison

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