La Oferta

September 22, 2023

Mexican scientists working to save coral reefs

By Juan Carlos Machorro

Mexico City, Jul 24 (EFE).– Mexican scientists are working to save coral reefs by grafting “fragments of opportunity” onto them, as they call the pieces of coral detached by the tide and then, when reattached elsewhere, can create new coral colonies.

This system of marine cultivation is the central element of the project headed by research biologist Alma Paola Rodriguez Troncoso, with the University of Guadalajara, on coral reefs in Mexico’s Pacific waters, reefs that are under great pressure due to pollution, extreme climate conditions and tourism.

The coral communities are one of the most important marine ecosystems due to their biodiversity and the ecosystem services that they provide, but they are also one of the more threatened, given that 33 percent of the species comprising them are in critical danger and 75 percent of the reefs are considered to be vulnerable, according to the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

Rodriguez told EFE on Wednesday that the coral fragments serve as the system of natural reproduction for the reefs, noting that they can be transported and grafted onto other regions to increase the presence of the sessile marine organism in zones that have been negatively impacted by human activity.

The project is being pursued at two emblematic sites in the Mexican Pacific: the Marietas Islands off the coast of Nayarit state and Punta Mita in Jalisco, where scientists are working to get the corals to repopulate in a region that for decades has been damaged by humans.

The Ph.D. in coastal oceanographic sciences said that in the six years the “Coral Restoration: Local Actions for Global Impacts” program has been under way scientists have been able to graft 3,500 coral fragments with a survival rate of 95 percent.

Also participating in the project are biological and agricultural sciences professor Amilcar Levi Cupul Magaña, also with the University of Guadalajara, and biosystems science, ecology and natural resource management professor Jose de Jesus Adolfo Tortoleto Langarica, with Mexico’s National Technological Institute.

Rodriguez said that the grafted coral fragments grow at the rate of 1.5 centimeters (0.6 inches) per year and it is hoped that after a decade they will be able to live without any additional help, and thus environmental, academic and political authorities must be patient about seeing evidence of the success of the environmental project.

“This type of coral planting system is very traditional, but now this cultivation of fragments is being supported with new underwater technologies and academic research to address their survival,” she emphasized.

She also said that a very particular characteristic of coral in Mexico’s Pacific and Caribbean waters is that they are very resistant, since they “deal with heavy climatic pressures, damage from tourism and even human pollution.”

“One might say that they are ‘kids who’ve had a rough life.’ They’re strong and tough; however, that doesn’t mean that they can be left alone without protection from man,” she said.

She added that due to the success that she and her colleagues have had in recent years, they’ve been approached by academic authorities from Panama and Costa Rica to expand this system of coral protection to the coastal zones of those nations.

“It’s not easy to replicate this type of project. We must study the characteristics of each region and its challenges. For example, in Costa Rica the waters suffer from heavy pollution from its agricultural systems, while in Mexico in the Pacific there’s a lot of pollution from of hotel complexes,” she said.

Rodriguez acknowledged that relatively little attention is being paid to coral ecosystems despite the fact that they provide shelter and food for countless numbers of marine species, including algae, molluscs and marine mammals, as well as rays, sharks and other fish.

“We must bring them out of the shadows. The public and the politicians have to get behind caring for them, since they are essential for marine life,” she stressed.

Rodriguez said that the coordinated work of academia and the National Commission for Protected Natural Areas (Conanp) to set up campaigns emphasizing the importance of preserving the corals is essential.