Rapid tourism growth and declining coral reefs in Akumal, Mexico
Ecosystem-based management efforts in coral reefs typically focus on reducing fishing pressure. However, independent of overfishing, tourism can degrade coral reefs through coastal development, as well as the physical presence of tourists within the ecosystem, the effects of which remain poorly understood. We combined a 3-year dataset on coral and algal cover with a more extensive survey of the benthic community to examine the effect of intensive tourism on a coral reef in Akumal Bay, Mexico. Results from our 3-year dataset indicated that near the peak snorkeling area in the bay, coral cover decreased by 79 % from summer 2011 through summer 2014, a period in which the number of monthly snorkelers increased by more than 400 %. Our summer 2013 survey of the benthic community between sites within a zone of dense snorkeler traffic versus site at a nearby control location revealed negative effects of intensive tourism on particular coral morphologies and on the abundance of herbivorous reef fishes. Our results suggest that uncontrolled tourism, including accelerating growth in the number of snorkelers, is likely contributing to the decline of the coral reef in Akumal Bay, where further expansions in tourism are planned. Indeed, the ecosystems threatened by overexploitation via tourism in the Mayan Riviera also form the basis for the regional tourism industry. Thus, long-term ecological monitoring coupled with the establishment and enforcement of regulations on tourism may be essential for the sustainability of coral reefs, as well as the socioeconomic benefits they provide in Mexico.