“Wherever protection has been implemented, improvement is evident” Juan José Alvarado, CIMAR
Juan José Alvarado (CIMAR researcher) and Cindy Fernández (CIMAR researcher) have been observing the Costa Rican reefs for nearly two years through an unprecedented effort. Their extensive work turns them into the most knowledgeable and experienced people on the reefs that are hidden underneath the Pacific of Costa Rica.
What conclusions have you reached after so many dives, so much data collected and so much analysis?
JJ: The big surprise of the monitoring has been Osa. Particularly, Golfo Dulce. This area has traditionally been impacted by sedimentation and gold extraction … But it is evident that the conservation strategies implemented around the Gulf are working. The live coral coverage is really high; invertebrate diversity is high, among fish, there is a rich diversity. Golfo Dulce has a live coral coverage higher than Coco’s Island. It is the richest point along the coast.
C: One would tend to think that Golfo Dulce is unsuitable for reef development, but we realize that the conservation strategies that have been ongoing for fifteen years are indeed working.
If Golfo Dulce is the head of this history, which one’s the tail?
JJ: The sad part of this story is Tempisque, ACT (Área de Conservación Tempisque). All the reefs are dead, buried under sedimentation caused by the disproportionate development in coastal zones and river banks, the impact of red tides has torn them apart… It is also low in invertebrates and in fish. Fish sizes are small, it shows that there is a much higher fishing effort going on. For example, sea cucumbers and lobsters are hard to come by. There is an alarm going off in the area.
C: It is clear that a phase shift has occurred. The base is coral but it is covered by macro-algae. It’s the most diverse setting in terms of macro-algae and that means the reef is very damaged.
And what do you believe is the reason for so much difference?
C: Around ACOSA there are so many terrestrial, marine and coastal protected areas, together they form a buffer network that alleviates the impact from fishing.
JJ: Wherever protection has been implemented, improvement is evident. Especially in places where people have actively gotten involved. Marino Ballena is one such example: We have worked there for fifteen years and we can seen a remarkable change in people’s mindsets. They went from the “I’m a fisherman and I have to take from the sea” to “I have to take care of and be a part of the resource”. Before it used to be impossible to gain access to boats for monitoring, now they ask you how many you need. The participation of the tourism industry has exceeded even that of the government. Whereas at ACT, conservation has clashed with the strong fishing tradition.
So in some areas you have effectively involved the communities. Do you think it would be possible to do the same in the others?
JJ: It is fundamental that communities understand that a healthy reef is a productive reef. They are their source of nourishment for the future. They are also focal points of high diversity in organisms, they provide ecosystem services in terms of health, landscape, and economy in the form of tourism. They may be small ecosystems, patches along the coast, but they provide many, many services
C: ACOSA should be the model to follow, because the effort has been well organized. At the moment it is the only place with an established monitoring commission made up by the universities, the government and NGOs.
Is the difference determined only by the degree of awareness in the communities and the pressure that fishing introduces?
JJ: Fishing pressure is one of many, but not the biggest pressure. To me, the main problem at ACT is watershed management. Many hotels have been built, many houses with sea views, a lot of teak and melina plantations … Teak and melina don’t allow for rainwater to reach the groundwater layer because the soil is almost waterproofed. So all that rain washes off straight into the ocean. Because of the plantations, they carry high levels of fertilizers, which then enter the sea and feed it, so you end up having red tides almost year round. Even fishermen are being affected. If there is no proper management on land, the fisheries may get regulated, but a solution won’t be reached. Furthermore, the distribution of the tourism sector is also unmistakable. In the South Pacific there are tour operators dedicated to diving or whale watching all over. At ACT, however, there is barely one person in charge of diving in Curú, there’s a small dive center in Sámara that works three months a year and between there and Coco beach there’s nothing. Whale watching is only offered at Curú and Tambor, and then none until Culebra. There´s room for a lot of change there.
And do you think the changes would arrive in time?
C: Of course, if you provide an ecosystem with enough time to recover, it will. The way to get there is to remove all those pressures it’s currently sitting under.
Both you and the sponsors of this research have been pleased with the results. In which way has the aid received influenced this work?
JJ: Without the establishment of this project we would not have been able to get this research done, plain and simple. We would not have been able to work with this number of divers, or this kind of equipment, or dedicated this amount of time. It is this funding that allows for deep, high-quality research.
C: The money from the University of Costa Rica alone wouldn’t have been enough to complete a project of this size. Most definitely, accessing opportunities like this, allows for the ability to do something great. Many things get done through the University, but at a more elementary level. The questions we had when we started our work, we’ve been able to answer because we had the required resources.
Cindy Fernández y Juan José; Alvarado