Project Background

Overview:

The expedition base is quite luxurious for an expedition in that there is running water, although this is limited due to the size of the water tank. But it usually means each expedition member can experience two freshwater showers a week and then its good old bucket showers (just to make it feel a bit more like an expedition!) The food is very basic with a lot of rice, beans and pasta. There is usually porridge for breakfast with pancakes on special occasions.
The cooking and general camp maintenance are shared between everybody, the group is divided into 3 who will do kitchen duty every three days. When you are not on kitchen duty, you will either be on boat duty – kitting up the boat for that day’s diving, or on ground duty, which involves raking the grounds and the beach. All of this contributes to the smooth running of camp, keeps the base looking neat and tidy and reduces the sand fly and ant problems. Tidiness is extremely important in Mahahual as we are situated in a village and therefore on show all the time.
Expedition Members will also be trained in how to use the compressor, and everyone takes it in turns to help fill the dive tanks for the next day’s diving.
Everyone also takes it in turns to help enter the research data we have collected, which is then handed over to our in country partners for analysis. We will also perform our own analysis of the data as well.
Each Expedition Member will be responsible for other aspects of expedition life, and this ranges from dive and boat monitor to food monitor and the much sought after rubbish monitor!
We work Monday morning to Saturday afternoon, followed by an end of the work week Saturday night barbeque, and the weekend lasts from Saturday afternoon to Sunday evening. At the weekend you are free to do what you want – you can either stay on base and relax in a hammock and enjoy the village of Mahahual or take the local bus out of Mahahual and visit some different parts of Mexico.
Mahahual is a small fishing village that has recently been chosen as a cruise ship destination port and is therefore overrun with tourists a few times each week. The rate at which Mahahual is developing is astounding. Within two years the number of cruise ships has increased to 225 per year. It has been proposed that the size of the port will be enlarged to accommodate 450 cruise ships a year.
Mahahual is about 2 hours drive from Chetumal (the capital of Quintana Roo) and 4 hours from Cancun. Global Vision International has been operating in Mahahual since April 2004. The area has been earmarked for potential protection and so the marine survey work we do here will hopefully contribute to a zoned protection scheme for the reefs of Mahahual.

Project Summary:

Global Vision International’s ambitious and unique Coral Reef Research Expedition supports and assists the work of local NGO’s and government groups, international NGO’s and universities on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef Survey, a programme funded in part by the World Bank. The reef here is the second largest barrier reef in the world and the largest coral system within the Atlantic Ocean, stretching from the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico down south through Belize and Guatemala to the Bay Islands, off the coast of Honduras.
The Mexican State of Quintana Roo has approximately 650km of coral reef that represents the Mexican portion of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. The reef has an important value for fisheries and tourism, activities that, at the same time, represent a high environmental risk. As an Expedition Member, you will be assisting in a range of community led environmental research and awareness projects, including:
The collection of coral reef characterisation and monitoring data in the northern part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, to help form a comprehensive picture of the ecological health of the northern region of reef.
Developing the expedition base as an Ecological Research and Awareness Centre.
Education and awareness programmes at local schools, hotels, the expedition base and in the open environment.
GVI’s primary partners on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef Survey in Mahahual are the non-governmental organization Amigos de Sian Ka’an, A.C. (ASK) and the University of Quintana Roo. We will also present our data to the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas (CONANP). International supporting partners are Reef Check, The Coral Alliance (CORAL) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). In addition, The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is a supporting partner of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef Survey. All research findings and data will be made available to ReefBase, International Coral Reef Information Network (ICRIN), local universities, NGO`s and governmental organisations as well as a variety of international universities and research bodies.
Preliminary meetings with the local NGO Amigos de Sian Ka’an (ASK), the University of Quintana Roo and other local partners identified 3 main project areas that were deemed a priority:

1. The collection of coral reef baseline characterisation and monitoring data in the northern part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.

A baseline characterisation and monitoring survey is being conducted to form a comprehensive picture of the ecological health of the northern region of reef, including substrate, multi-fish species, reef building invertebrate and reef associated invertebrate surveys.
The central and southern portions of the state still have areas where tourism is low, although will increase within the next years with the growth of the Costa Maya Project. To detect the impact of such factors over the reef, it is necessary to implement monitoring surveys to evaluate the ecosystem condition through time and establish appropriate management strategies. GVI will assist ASK in a permanent monitoring programme of the community structure and the condition of environmentally sensitive groups (algae, coral, and fish). We will be conducting dive surveys at three different depths at sites along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
The Mesoamerican Region is under increasing pressure from a variety of anthropogenic sources such as coastal and tourism development; pollution from point and non-point sources, such as from excess nutrients from agricultural run-off, coastal aquaculture, shrimp farming and domestic waste on the reef; over-fishing; increased tourism activities such as boating and golfing (which results in run-off of herbicides) and other inappropriate use of its resources.
Additionally, it is subjected to periodic apparently natural phenomena including episodes of warmer temperature, flooding (with resulting sedimentation), bleaching, outbreaks of disease, storms and hurricanes. Some of the human activities may be aggravating the impacts of these natural events, resulting in an inability of the ecosystems to recover as rapidly as they might have done under natural circumstances. It has therefore become increasingly important to measure the ‘health’ of the various ecosystems in the MBRS in order to establish, as far as possible, the nature and extent of changes, the causes of those changes, and the potential solutions.
MBRS Technical Document No. 4 Manual of Methods for Synoptic Monitoring
The Synoptic Monitoring Program (SMP) has been developed to try to answer some of the questions on the health of the reef and its associated ecosystems, in order to assist in the management of this unique and shared resource.

Objectives:
* To follow up the characterisation of the reefs conducted by ASK
* To monitor and evaluate the condition of coral reefs located off the coast of Mahahual
* To inform the general society about the condition of monitored reefs.

2. Integrated Solid Waste Management Strategy for Mahahual and Costa Maya
Current solid waste management practices in the Costa Maya region are obsolete, thus threatening human health, soil, underground water, and fragile surrounding ecosystems. Increasing tourism activities in the last few years aggravate the problem. The project will target a change in the way the local inhabitants manage their waste. Emphasis will be given to source reduction, composting, and recycling.

Objectives:
* To support the Integrated Solid Waste Management Strategy initiated by Japanese aid funding and Amigos de Sian Ka’an
* To propose actions that aim at preventing soil contamination and mitigating associated public health risks of the region.
* To foster a change of attitude among all society sectors regarding management, collection, and final disposal of solid waste they generate.

3. Marine Education and Awareness Programmes.

The State of Quintana Roo on the Caribbean coast of Mexico is the stronghold of the Mayan population. Today, the Mayan population and culture still exist, and they are still a powerfully independent people, having never surrendered to the Mexican government. However, mass tourism has now reached their lands and in the past 30 years they have had to contend with issues that most of central and south Americas have adapted to over the past 500 years.
GVI have been requested to conduct English Language teaching within the local schools and community, to give the local population better opportunity to benefit from the influx of foreign revenue into the area as tourism develops. GVI will be conducting education and awareness programmes at local schools, in the local environment, at hotels, the expedition base and in the open environment. The expedition base will be developed as an Ecological Research and Environmental Education Centre. The base will be open to the general public and specific open days will be held to encourage further awareness of the marine environment and its importance amongst both the local community and visitors to the area.
In addition, G.V.I. are to assist a variety of several other local NGO’s and governmental marine and terrestrial research programmes and community projects within the region, one of which is assisting in English Language teaching within the local schools and community.

Coral Reefs:
A coral reef is a complex, shallow water marine environment, found in tropical and subtropical waters warmer than 18 degrees Celcius, that is the second most diverse ecosystem in the world. They are the largest biological structures on earth and can even be seen from space. Worldwide, coral reefs cover an estimated 284,300 square kilometers, (110,000 square miles), and geological record indicates that the ancestors of modern coral reef ecosystems were formed at least 350 million years ago. The coral reefs existing today began growing as early as 50 million years ago. Most established coral reefs today are between 5,000 and 10,000 years old. Today, coral reefs cover less than 0.2% of the ocean floor, but as one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet, they are the seen as “rainforests of the sea,” and are an incredible biodiversity reservoir. They host an extraordinary variety of marine plants and animals including one quarter of all marine fish species Over 6,000 different species of fish, 2,500 species of coral and thousands of other plants and animals have so far been identified and this is thought to be only 10% of the estimated 1 to 2 million species present.

Ecology:
Out of the all the species that inhabit the reefs, only a fraction produce the calcium carbonate structures that actually build them. The most important of the reef building organisms are the coral polyps, tiny plant-like animals that build by secreting calcium carbonate skeletons. The animals live symbiotically with unicellular algae, called zooxanthellae. Photosynthesis by the algae supplies oxygen, altering the carbon dioxide concentrations in the coral tissues and increasing the animals ability to secrete its skeleton. Organisms, such as sponges, worms and bivalves, bore into the coral and, along with some species of grazing fish and invertebrates, break down the dead coral skeletons. The resulting dead organic matter settles into spaces in the reef and is eventually cemented by algae, bryozoans, and minerals, thus stabilizing the reef structure. The calcium carbonate skeletons gradually accumulate and the reef grows.

Socieconomic Context:
The coral reefs provide food for hundreds of millions of coastal peoples, many from developing countries with no alternative source of animal protein. The reefs and their associated white sand beaches attract millions of tourists and many of the world`s 20 million SCUBA divers. Through tourism, marine recreation and export fisheries, they provide the only source of income and employment for many coastal areas and, in some cases, entire nations. They also protect over 100,000 kms of coastlines from erosion, hence protecting the associated communities. In addition, they offer a new frontier for medicinal research. Treatments for leukaemia and cardio-vascular diseases are based on compounds from coral reefs and more than half of all new cancer drug research focuses on marine organisms. One recent example is AZT, a new treatment for people with HIV infections, which is based on chemicals extracted from a Caribbean reef sponge.

Threats to Coral Reefs:
Coral reefs are directly threatened worldwide by commercial overfishing, which is causing further degradation as many subsistence fishing communities are forced to resort to poisoning the reef in the collection of aquaria fishes, dynamite fishing and coral harvesting. Climatic change is also having a severe detrimental effect upon coral reefs. Changing weather patterns are causing fluctuations in the surface dynamics of oceans, in turn causing local rises in sea temperatures and damaging corals. The stress due to the higher temperatures cause corals to loose the symbiotic algae, which give them their colour and which they depend upon to survive. If the temperatures are long term or repeated frequently, the coral will not take up more zooxanthellae and will die. A rise of just 2 degree Celcius is proven to be enough to cause coral bleaching and 4 degrees above maximum tolerable values for just a few days causes the deaths of 90-95% of one group, madrepores. The higher frequency of rains, hurricanes, typhoons in tropical regions leads to increased run off and sedimentation, also lethal to corals and exaggerated by rainforest clearance, and increased wave erosion. Additional pressure is applied by pollution from factories, mines, agriculture and tourist developments, dredging, oil dumping, coral mining, irresponsible boating, diving and other recreational. More than one-third of the world’s coral reefs have already been destroyed or permanently damaged, and just under two thirds are under threat.

Climate change:
GVI Mexicos monitoring programme aims to provide a long term record of coral and fish species abundance and distribution over time, which can be compared to base line data. Monitoring also focuses on the general health of the reef and related coastal ecosystems. Climate change is thought to affect coral reefs through an increase on sea surface temperatures, which in turns increases bleaching and diseases levels in coral species. Climate change may also be increasing hurricane strength and frequency, increasing physical damage in coral reef species and destroying breading associated ecosystems like mangroves. GVI monitors bleaching and diseases rates as well and physical parameters such as water temperature and salinity. These parameters will help identify trends, such as increased bleaching associated with increase sea surface temperature. On top of raw data collection, GVI aims to raise environmental awareness amongst the local community in Mexico through interactions such as teaching, and across the world by educating its expedition members.