Biodiversity, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Putting a Price Tag on Destruction of Mangroves

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Jul 24 2008 (IPS) - The destruction of the rich mangroves along the coasts of northwestern Mexico has had a heavy impact on fisheries in that area, according to a new study that attempts to put a price tag on these fragile ecosystems.

The report says that the mangroves of the Gulf of California, wedged between the Baja Peninsula and the mainland of Mexico, support more than 26 highly profitable fisheries and provide 37,500 dollars in benefits per hectare a year.

“There is a correlation between the quantity of mangroves and catches of species like catfish, sea bass, snapper and crab,” Ezequiel Ezcurra, director of the Biodiversity. Research Centre of the Californias for the San Diego Natural History Museum, told IPS.

Ezcurra was one of the six authors of the report, which was published Monday in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States.

The researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego found that more than 30 percent of the catch by small-scale fishermen between 2001 and 2005 in the Gulf of California came from species that depend on mangroves, which are ecosystems made up of trees and shrubs that grow in saline coastal habitats in tropical and subtropical areas.

The study was released ahead of International Mangrove Day, which is commemorated Jul. 26.

Based on a combination of field studies and geographical and economic factors, the researchers found that from 2001 to 2005, 13 Gulf of California fishing regions produced an annual average of 11,500 tons of fish and crabs that originate in the mangroves, which brought in around 19 million dollars for local fishermen.

The scientists estimated that one hectare of red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) – the mangrove species that is most commonly found closest to the water line – in the area produces annually around 37,500 dollars worth of fish and crabs, with the long-term value projected at over 600,000 dollars in 30 years, hundreds of times the price tag set on this key ecosystem by the Mexican government.

“The real services and benefits provided by the mangroves are not fully appreciated. Besides, there are no data on the benefits of the projects that have led to their destruction,” Esperanza Salazar, the head of Bios Iguana, an environmental group based in the northwestern Mexican state of Colima, commented to IPS.

Local and international environmental organisations have long warned that the construction of high-end tourist resorts, shrimp farming and industrial expansion are destroying the mangroves at an alarming rate.

Bios Iguana is carrying out a campaign against the installation of a regasification plant in the Pacific Ocean port of Manzanillo, in Colima state. Two percent of the state‘s 3,192 hectares of mangrove swamps are lost annually. Cuyutlán Lagoon, where the plant is to be built, accounts for nearly half – 1,500 hectares – of the state’s mangroves and is home to endangered species of crocodiles and iguanas.

According to official figures, there are around 800,000 hectares of mangroves in Mexico, 10,000 of which disappear every year.

The “Mangroves of Mexico” programme carried out by the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO) reports that the Yucatan Peninsula in the Caribbean has the greatest total area of mangroves, covering 349,252 hectares.

Mexico’s Caribbean coastal region also has the highest mangrove deforestation rate in the country, approximately 12 percent, mainly due to the construction of tourist resorts and to overall urban growth.

Cancún, a Caribbean resort city, was hit hard by Hurricane Wilma in October 2005, which left 250,000 dead or homeless and caused millions of dollars in material damages. The unusually severe impact was the result of the degradation of coastal areas, according to experts.

“Mangroves are quite resistant to hurricanes and help minimise their impact,” said Ezcurra.

In February 2007, the federal government amended Mexico’s general law on wildlife in order to prohibit any destruction of mangroves. But the real estate and tourism industries have brought pressure to bear to get article 60 of the law modified and thus obtain permits to cut down mangroves as long as they plant new ones on other areas of the coast.

So far, lobbying by some 100 environmental groups has kept the proposed modification from moving through Congress.

During the government of conservative president Vicente Fox (2000-2006), the state National Fund to Foment Tourism sold coastal areas covered by mangroves for between one and 14 dollars per square metre.

The extreme underestimation of the benefits generated by mangroves for fisheries, in contrast to the projected benefits of coastal developments and aquaculture, reveals a crisis of planning and regulation in the coastal areas of the Gulf of California, says the study by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography researchers.

CONABIO’s Mangroves of Mexico programme has identified mangrove forests in immediate need of environmental rehabilitation.

The programme’s long-term goal is to gauge the rate of change and identify the main factors that have led to the transformation of mangroves over the last 30 years, determine the areas most suitable for conservation and rehabilitation, and design guidelines and indicators for monitoring these fragile ecosystems.

“In the industrial and port zones of Colima, ecosystems that are extremely important for the country are being destroyed in exchange for projects that only benefit a few,” said Salazar, whose organisation belongs to the Red Manglar Internacional (International Mangrove Network).

The study published Monday concludes that the precarious state of coastal wetlands in northwestern Mexico and around the world must not be ignored, particularly at a time when food production has far-reaching implications for human welfare.

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