Cozumel National Park Reefs Closed as Coral Disease Spreads
Mexican authorities have announced that the southern part of Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park will be closed in an attempt to combat the spread of a disease which is rapidly wiping out much of the region's hard coral.
The Natural Protected Areas Commission (Conanp) of Mexico has stated that the closure will commence on 7 October and will remain in place for an as yet unspecified period of time. The sites that will be closed include all the Palancar dive sites and everything south of Palancar including Colombia, Punta Sur, El Cielo, Punta Celerain, Chun Chacaab and Maracaibo. The reefs towards the northern part of the island will remain open.
The infection has been reported as two different strains of coral disease: an article in Mexico News Daily reports it as white band disease, which affects mostly species of Acropora corals (table corals, staghorn, elkhorn) however, a blog post by local dive operator Scuba Tony reports the disease as being Stony Coral Tissue Loss, which affects the larger reef-building corals such as brain corals, but appears not to infect Acropora.
Whichever disease is actually causing the destruction, the effects are rapid and devastating. The various available reports suggest it was first detected in Cozumel in October 2018. By May 2019, Conanp reported that 30 per cent of Mexican Caribbean reefs had been affected. By August, that figure had risen to 42 per cent.
The cause of the disease is unclear but thought to be bacterial, based on other similar diseases that have been identified in corals around the world. Such diseases are spread by the close proximity of coral polyps in a colony, and between corals by water movement or by other animals. Stress factors such as pollution and rising ocean temperatures are thought to decrease the resilience of corals to infection, with the effects of tourism including irresponsible marine activities, sunscreen and fuel from the many boats in the area all thought to contribute to the reef's poor health and inability to resist infection.
Some local operators have protested over the decision to close the popular reefs to tourism, claiming that they will suffer an unacceptable loss of income as a result. The dive centres which have commented on the closure are keen to stress that most of Cozumel's reefs remain open for diving.