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ENVIRONMENT: Scientists Study the Riches of the Mexican Pacific

Emilio Godoy* - Tierramérica

MEXICO CITY, Jul 2 2009 (IPS) - Mexico’s Pacific coast, one of the world’s richest seaboards in terms of biodiversity, has been the focus of very few scientific studies. A new observatory aims to fill that void.

Tourism development in Santa Lucía Bay, Acapulco, Mexico. Credit: Public Domain

Tourism development in Santa Lucía Bay, Acapulco, Mexico. Credit: Public Domain

The coastline includes nature preserves and protected areas that are home to an unknown number of plant and animal species, many of them unique to Mexico.

The Jacques Cousteau Observatory will explore the physical, chemical, biological, climate and socioeconomic characteristics of the area, which will serve as the basis for diagnosis and policies for sustainable management.

The Observatory, the product of scientific cooperation between Mexico and France, was inaugurated Jun. 23 and will involve some 30 scientists in its operations.

The Northwest Centre for Biological Research, which is part of the National Science and Technology Council’s system, serves as its initial headquarters. Located in La Paz, in the state of Baja California Sur, it was chosen for its ongoing academic exchanges with scientific institutions in France.

The Observatory was named in honour of the famous French sea explorer Cousteau (1910-1997), who referred to the Gulf of California (also known as the Sea of Cortez) – the waters between the Baja peninsula and the Mexican mainland – as the “world’s aquarium.”

“The Sea of Cortez has drawn much attention in recent years. The mangroves there serve as true nurseries for marine species,” Sofía Cortina, attorney for the non-governmental Inter-American Association for Environmental Defence (AIDA), told Tierramérica.

Further, “the Pacific here is among the most important fishing waters and has some species that are unique, like the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a small, rare type of porpoise that is on the verge of extinction,” said Leila Monroe, oceans policy analyst with the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defence Council.

Eleven of the world’s 232 marine eco-regions are found in Mexico. Of those, eight are located along the Pacific coast. The government’s National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity established around 30 priority marine areas along the seaboard from the southern state of Chiapas to the U.S. border.

“That area has great environmental value. In states like Guerrero and Oaxaca there are internationally important beaches for some species of sea turtle, like the leatherback,” biologist Ana Barragán, a specialist with the national sea turtle programme of Mexico’s National Commission for Protected Areas, told Tierramérica.

Mexico has six native sea turtle species, with three found along the Pacific: the black (Chelonia agassizii), leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) turtles. Today, the population of female leatherbacks is believed to be just 2,000.

Another important habitat is the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve, a protected area of 934,756 hectares, created in 1993.

The area is home to 39 endangered marine species, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

Mexico’s mangroves cover about 800,000 hectares (62 percent on the Atlantic coast and the rest on the Pacific coast). Some 10,000 hectares of mangroves – a forest ecosystem typical to coastal wetlands – disappear each year, according to official figures.

A 2008 study of Gulf of California mangroves by Mexican, U.S. and Spanish scientists concluded that the destruction of this ecosystem was causing serious harm to local fishing industries.

According to the report, more than 26 fisheries of high economic value, which provide annual benefits of about 700,000 dollars per hectare, are sustained by the Gulf’s mangroves.

The area “is a huge cradle of biodiversity,” said Barragán.

Mexico registered 113 wetlands, considered to be of global importance, with the Ramsar Convention. The 1971 treaty serves as a framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands.

In Monroe’s opinion, “one of the most important tasks of the Observatory will be to educate about the importance of marine species and habitat.”

Cortina noted that there is a great deal of research yet to be done. “The Observatory is going to help, by providing objective elements about the area’s situation, which will help the government and non-governmental organisations.”

Environmental groups warn that the states of Baja California, Chiapas and Jalisco, along the Pacific, are among the most vulnerable areas to the effects of climate change in Mexico

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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