NEMO: Citizen science movement in the Mesoamerican Reef

August 11, 2019
The Mesoamerican Reef is the world’s second largest reef system and is under serious threat, due to climate change, water pollution, overtourism and overfishing. NEMO is an innovative citizen science movement that aims to monitor and improve the health of the reef

The Mesoamerican Reef is the world’s second largest reef system, extending for more than 1000 kilometres along the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. It is home to more than 900 marine species and provides numerous benefits to the whole region, including a booming tourism industry that every year attracts millions of tourists (14 million only to Mexico’s Caribbean coast in 2018).

Mesoamerican Reef extension – Photo: STI

However, this biodiversity heaven is in danger and according to the 2018 Healthy Reefs report card, over half of the reef is in poor or critical condition, due to climate change, water pollution, overtourism and overfishing, posing a serious threat to coral and marine species, as well the livelihoods that depend on these assets.

Sargassum and White syndrome

Lately, a macro algae known as Sargassum has been arriving massively to the Caribbean coasts, pushed by the Golf’s current from the coasts of Brazil, where it´s believed to originate. The cause of its proliferation is an excess of nutrients in the water, due to land clearing and discharges of fertilizers in the Amazon river which end up in the ocean, as well as inadequate sewage treatment and coastal development. The problem with this excess of algae is that it makes it difficult for sunlight to pass to the ocean floor to provide oxygen for corals, and its decomposition produces gases such as methane, deteriorating water quality.

Sargassum in the Mexican coasts

The recent coral disease outbreak called White Syndrome is highly related to the poor quality of water.  It was first discovered in the coasts of Florida and since then has spread to other regions in the Caribbean, killing over 20 coral species at an accelerated rate. This seriously compromises the ability of corals to provide numerous medium and long-term ecosystem benefits, such as the creation of reefs that protect coasts from hurricane and sand production, among many others.

The White Syndrome disease is spreading rapidly across the Mesoamerican Reef. The disease destroys the soft tissues of corals, resulting in lesions that look like white rings or patches. In just a matter of weeks, it can transform vibrant coral structures that took hundreds of years to grow into lifeless skeletons covered with algae. Among the coral species more susceptible to the disease are brain, pillar, star and starlet coral and approximately 30% of affected coral species have already died since the disease was discovered in June 2018. To put things into perspective – the amount of coral lost in the first six months of the outbreak is equivalent to the amount lost in the previous 40 years.

Coral disease progression – Photo: Lorenzo Alvarez Filip, BARCOLAB

NEMO: Natural Environment Marine Observer

Luckily, there are many organizations working to find a cure to the disease and protect the reef, Sustainable Travel International being one of them. STI is a global non-profit organization dedicated to protect the world´s most vulnerable destinations, that has just launched a campaign called NEMO (Natural Environment Marine Observers). NEMO is an innovative citizen science movement that seeks to involve travellers and operators in reef conservation, creating awareness about the importance of protecting these precious ecosystems.

Every day there are hundreds of people going to dive and snorkel in the reef, taking pictures of coral and marine species, and there is great potential to harness this valuable  information that could be useful for scientists. NEMO’s purpose is exactly that, to make visitors, operators and local citizens aware of the issues and empowered to save the reefs, simply by sharing the pictures of what they see while exploring it. These pictures are then analysed by a Reef Response team, formed by CONANP (Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas), SEMARNAT (Mexican Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources), UNAM-BarcoLab and Healthy Reefs, in order to monitor the health of the reef.

The pilot destination to start the campaign is Cozumel island in Mexico. To this end, CONANP and STI recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding at the Social and Sustainable Tourism Summit, to collaborate in the protection of Cozumel’s reefs. The long term objective is to incorporate the rest of the Mesoamerican reef’s countries.

How to take part of NEMO?

It is very simple to participate and help scientists to monitor the health of the reef. While diving or snorkelling, you take photos of the reefs, marine species and any possible threats you spot, being plastic pollution or a coral that might be infected. To spot infected coral, look for coral that has bare white patches or bands. Once you are back on land, upload these photos to Instagram using the hashtag #supportnemo adding the location (dive site or GPS coordinates) and the date you took the photos. This way, scientists who are part of the Reef Response team, can discover what is happening on the reef and take action to protect it.

The idea is that both visitors and tour operators bringing tourists to the reef can take part in the campaign and contribute to its conservation. Tour Operators can become NEMO Ambassadors, educating tourists on how to correctly behave while diving or snorkelling.

As Echoes of the Journey is currently based in Playa del Carmen, we are actively contributing to this movement with activities on the ground, such as meetings with tour operators and other organizations to introduce them to the movement.

Even if you are not in Mexico, you can still support the reef, by following @SupportNEMO on Instagram to keep updated and grow this reef conservation movement and also by visiting their website, for more ways to get involved.

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