Report: Caribbean Coral Reef Being Damaged
By KARLA HEUSNER VERNON
10:00 PM PST, December 12, 2006
BELIZE CITY — Fertilizer and sediment runoff from sugarcane, banana and pineapple plantations are threatening tourism by damaging a coral reef stretching along the Caribbean coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, according to a report released on Tuesday.
The report by the World Resources Institute and other groups said that reducing pesticides, fertilizers and erosion could help head off increasing damage to the world's second-largest barrier reef, which stretches over 600 miles.
The report estimates that over 80 percent of the sediment and over half of all nutrients that damage the reefs originate in Honduras, whose large rivers drain into the Caribbean.
"Our analysis shows that pollution from farms in Honduras can inadvertently damage the entire Mesoamerican reef, which is an important source of revenue from tourism and fisheries," said Lauretta Burke, an expert in coastal ecosystems for the resources institute and one of the authors of the report.
Silt runoff can cloud water, cutting off coral species' access to sunlight. Pesticides can kill coral, and fertilizers such as nitrogen and phosphorous can spur the growth of algae, which competes with coral for sunlight. The study estimates that, if current practices continue, silt runoff may increase by as much as 13 percent by 2025.
Other studies have estimated that up to 30 percent of the world's coral reefs have died in the last 50 years, and another 30 percent are severely damaged, often as a result of sedimentation and rising sea temperatures.
Liza Karina Agudelo, coordinator of the International Coral Reef Action Network-MesoAmerican Reef Alliance, said the study doesn't intend to cast blame on Honduras, whose rain and drainage patterns make it vulnerable to runoff, but rather "sends the message to everyone that the reef belongs to the whole region. It doesn't help to blame one country."
For centuries, huge plantations of sugar cane, pineapples and bananas were the region's main source of wealth. In recent years, tourism and remittances sent home by migrants working abroad have since replaced those crops as the main source of outside income for many of the region's countries.
Groups including the World Wildlife Fund are now working with planters and farmers in Honduras to improve farming practices.
"We are using the results of the study to reduce the use of pesticides and to control erosion of soil from important agricultural sectors" in Honduras and elsewhere, said Jose Vasquez, head of the WWF's agriculture office in Central America.
Vasquez said his group is now working with big growers as well as citrus and sugar cane growers in Honduras.