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Costa Rica’s precious reefs need protection

December 9, 2010

Scattered around the seas of Costa Rica are tiny animals that live together with plants in self-built homes: coral reefs.

A coral head may be the size of a computer screen or grow as big as a car, which is about when we start calling it a reef. The biggest reefs in Costa Rica stretch for kilometers off the southern Caribbean coast. Cocos Island National Park and Caño Island Biological Reserve contain the best of the Pacific reefs, but there are many other patch reefs along the entire Pacific coast, especially where no dirty rivers are too near.

Among the ocean’s many ecosystems, the coral reef speaks to us perhaps the strongest. Here in Costa Rica, our ties to the sea pass through the coral. The corals protect, nourish and enrich us, teach us and provide heaps of fun and income. They are ancient permaculture gardens tended to by fish and a bunch of very strange creatures that live underwater.

The country’s precious reefs are being eradicated because of hotels and businesses that want to save money on wastewater treatment, demand for reduced agricultural costs and cheap seafood, and lack of sufficient marine protected areas and enforcement. The carbon dioxide in the air from all the cars, planes, trucks and buses is changing into acid in the ocean, and that eats away at reefs. In addition to leaching into our oceans, our exhaust is also warming up the planet, and that kills a lot of reef.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time – like, a really long time ago – the reefs off these shores bloomed healthy ecosystems. Lots of whales and dolphins right off the beaches and bays and filling the lagoons, so many that a mini-ecosystem of animals lived off their waste. Lots of big sharks pruning the smaller fish of the reef. Lots of smaller fish pruning the plants, corals and sponges of the reef. Heaps of turtles, muchos manatees, and maybe some human fishers and divers.

Then, a while back, the whales where slaughtered and the old ecosystems began to change. Then nearly all the sharks were gone, and the dolphins moved offshore. All the seals disappeared. Soon, most turtles were gone, followed by most manatees. Then the biggest fish were gone. And the reefs began to change.

Where once had been coral, now there was seaweed. Where once had been many big animals, now there were very few. Where once the rare, old and wise had thrived, now the small and the fleeting overwhelmed. Seas once full of fish were now full of jellyfish. Most of the multicolor of the reef morphed into the monotone of monoculture algae.

But take heart; there is still plenty of wondrous reef to see in Costa Rica. There are still blooming areas of live coral gardens and incomprehensible marine biodiversity. Still, it’s not what it used to be. We are assaulting the sea, and she is resisting the attack best in marine protected areas. Luckily for us, the ocean is incredibly resilient.

Resilience is what we need, and obviously some of the most important things we can do is minimize burning and buying petrol, stop inadequate wastewater treatment, manage and enforce environmental regulations, educate people and tend to our reefs.

The future of living reefs will probably not return to past states for a long time, if ever. Even in protected areas, bad kinds of invasive algae, like the caulerpa at Caño Island on the Pacific, will have to be cropped. Invasive fish, like the lionfish in the Caribbean’s Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, will have to be culled.

So we not only have to stop hurting the reefs – we have to start helping them.

E-mail costacetacea@gmail.com with contributions to The Big Blue, or check out www.costacetacea.com for more information.

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