The reef system is home to more than 65 species of stony coral, 350 species of mollusk and more than 500 species of fish. There are numerous species that live in or around the reef system that are endangered or under some degree of protection, including the following: sea turtles (Green turtle, Loggerhead Sea Turtle,Leatherback turtle, and the Hawksbill turtle), the Queen Conch, the West Indian Manatee, the Splendid toadfish, the American crocodile, the Morelet's Crocodile, theNassau grouper, Elkhorn coral, and black coral.
The reef system is home to one of the world's largest populations of manatees, with an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 of them.
Some northern areas of the reef system near Isla Contoy are home to the largest fish on the planet, the Whale shark. The normally solitary Whale sharks congregate there in social groups to eat and to mate.
Visitors flock to its sandy-white beaches and warm seas to snorkel and scuba dive. The Mesoamerican Reef supports millions of people along the neighbouring coasts.
But the tourism industry, combined with ecological pressures like overfishing and pollution, are taking their toll on the reef and the many local fishing communities.
This summer, the International League of Conservation Photographers partnered with Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI) to encourage sustainable practices, such as no-take fish refuges that allow populations to recover. They want 20% of the reef protected as a no-take zone.
Some fishermen are now trying to be more sustainable. South of Cancún in the Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve, the Punta Herrero commercial fishing cooperative consists almost entirely of men fishing for Caribbean Spiny Lobster.
The fishermen free-dive for lobsters, using small concrete hutches to attract and shelter the lobsters so they can be harvested by hand. This method decreases the amount of by-catch and reduces the impact to the reef.
However, in the much-visited Riviera Maya there is a large demand for fancy lobster dinners, including out of season when lobster fishing is not sustainable. Campaigners are now trying to persuade tourists to insist on sustainably-caught lobster.
South of Cancún at Akumal, sea turtles graze on seagrass in the clear blue water.
Seagrass also serves as a nursery for many coral reef fish – some of which are eaten by sea birds. Akumal's tourism industry depends on the health of the seagrass, so there are strict regulations on snorkeling.
The Limones site in the Puerto Morelos Reef National Park is now closed to everyone, including tourists and fishermen. As a result, the once-diseased elkhorn corals (Acropora palmata) are healthy, and are once again sheltering organisms like snappers, grunts and lobsters.
The ICRAN Mesoamerican Reef Alliance (MAR) project was a collaborative effort aimed at confronting the decline of coral reef ecosystems and improving the economic and environmental sustainability of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef through capacity building activities, the development of better practices, and building of partnerships with the private sector. The MAR was a multi-pronged programme, which addressed three areas that impact reef health: watershed management, fisheries, and marine tourism, and which encouraged the exchange of knowledge between organisations in the region to achieve the goals of the project.
The 3-year project, made possible through funds generously provided by the UN Foundation and USAID, made excellent advances, and project outputs included the development of tools for the prediction of future land use impacts on the reef, the release of a manual for best fishing practices among local fishermen communities, and the establishment of a Tourism Standards and Code Taskforce - a process lead by the tourism industry that has produced a set of standards and a code of conduct for sustainable marine recreation activities in the MAR.
Project partners are now well positioned to continue capacity building efforts and development of local partnerships and alliances, which will continue to improve sustainable business practices, community-wide support for sustainable tourism and fisheries, and develop future collaborative efforts past project completion.
See the OFAH Reef Map and local sponsors