Javier Baltonado lives in Liberia and, whenever he can, he travels almost an hour to Jicaro Beach, in Culebra Bay, to snorkel in what’s left of the coral reef that surrounds the small beach.
Before, he used to see octopuses creeping among the corals to protect themselves and eat, but now finding them seems like a miracle.
Overfishing and pollution along the coast of Guanacaste are two of the factors that have affected marine life. One of the most impacted ecosystems are the corals, as they are the meeting point between the coasts and the seas.
Baltodano, who is a biologist by profession, has also witnessed bad tourism practices that aggravate these problems, but he believes that action can be taken.
“The banana boats and jet skis pass over the reef, causing noise and pollution. Some tourists even stand on the reef without their guides adequately informing them about the possible damage caused,” he wrote in a statement that he prepared together with the Liberian Ecologist Group, of which he is a member. This group of people from Liberia decided to join forces voluntarily to denounce environmental problems such as the one that Jicaro Beach is facing.
Efforts are being made by institutions and organizations to rescue the reefs in that area. One of these is from the Marine Sciences and Limnology Research Center (CIMAR for the Spanish acronym) of the University of Costa Rica (UCR) along with private companies such as Peninsula Papagayo. Together, they work to seed corals in Culebra Bay, a technique that cuts small fragments of living coral and places them in another natural or artificial structure to reproduce them.
The group that Baltodano belongs to has also placed some buoys to mark off the reef so that boat captains know where not to drop anchor.
For the groups, it is urgent to take action because this is the last remaining patch of coral in the area and one of the pending tasks is to work on regulations and with those in charge of tourist boats to take better care of the ecosystem.
The presence of boats such as yachts and jet skis can alter the behavior of many species such as fish and dolphins. In addition, the noise of the engines stresses the animals that live near or in the coral reefs. Another problem is that captains drop anchors directly on the reefs.
Pressure Under the Water
Culebra Bay was full of reefs of a kind of coral called pocillopora, known as sirio. However, in the last 15 years, almost all of them have died, explained Juan Jose Alvarado, a CIMAR researcher who has studied these reefs for more than two decades.
It’s a small beach protected from the winds and many boats spend the day there for convenience. Since other places are agitated, then many go there,” Alvarado commented.
The reefs are wetlands protected by the organic environment law and are guarded by the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC for the Spanish acronym). However, the deputy director of the Tempisque Conservation Area (ACT for the Spanish acronym) stated that, in practice, proving this type of harm is complicated.
“It’s easier to prove that someone cut down a tree or looted a turtle nest than [destruction by] the impact of an anchor. They could, but it’s more difficult,” added Mendez.
In the event that damage of this type is proven, a judge decides whether to refer it to SINAC or what the mechanism is for executing the sentence that must be established.
The ACT subdirector, Mauricio Mendez, agrees and explained that when someone drops an anchor and it falls in one of the colonies, the colony breaks into many pieces.
That’s why Alvarado thinks one of the main challenges is to create a management study that indicates how many watercraft can circulate simultaneously. Another constant problem reported by the Liberian environmental group is the impact of anchors.
Just like any person comes and wants to park where they want, many times, captains come and want to anchor where they want. Even if there’s a mooring buoy, they don’t use it,” Mendez commented.
The captain and owner of the tourism company GoSouth, Walter Lotz, recognizes that there are bad practices within the industry, and believes that the most effective long-term solution is to educate tour operators.
Lotz lists the bad practices he has witnessed while conducting tours: boats that start their engines close to the beach and stir up sediments that cover the corals. Inexperienced people using ‘frog legs’ to stand on the reef and tourists using toxic coral blockers.
“The whole guild should know what is important for corals and how to help maintain them. It is in our interest that these things are maintained,” he believes.
The environment isn’t the only one that loses with the mismanagement of these vessels. The harm directly impacts tourism since it creates bad experiences, dissatisfied clients or even accidents, as there are watercraft passing over those who are snorkeling. The loss of the ecosystem may even cause the area to lose its tourism value.
Lotz, from GoSouth, knows of the serious consequences for other nearby areas.
“Huevos Beach used to have a super beautiful and large coral reef, but now not even 5% of it is left. They ended up killing it because, systematically during the last 15 years, at least 100 people went snorkeling in the same place with all those bad practices”, emphasizes the captain.
Solutions In and Out of the Water
As for actions they’re already taking, the ACT head highlighted the Green Fins international certification, which verifies certified diving centers that adopt environmentally friendly measures in their operations.
It’s an international, voluntary and free certification created by the Reef World Foundation, a United Nations (UN) program for the conservation of coral reefs.
In Costa Rica, Misión Tiburón (Shark Mission) is in charge of verifying companies’ compliance with measures. “In Playas del Coco, we have seven dive sites already certified and the idea is to certify all of them,” Mendez pointed out.
There are other fronts to attack this problem, such as including the borders of the reefs in nautical charts, a map that indicates navigable waters and their characteristics. The ACT deputy director affirmed that SINAC is holding discussions with the Navigation and Maritime Safety Administration of the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation (MOPT for the Spanish acronym) to achieve this.
The intention is to create the maps and tell MOPT ‘here are the coral reefs, please publish it in the navigation instruments so that we can then prevent anchors from being dropped where the colonies are,'” Mendez indicated.
On the other hand, Alvarado added that it’s necessary to reinforce environmental education in trainings from the National Learning Institute (INA for the Spanish acronym), who could make education modules for diving and boat captain courses.
The Voice of Guanacaste contacted Proyecto Corales in Samara beach, who also work with coral gardens, to find out how they have raised awareness in the tourism sector that operates watercraft, but by the deadline for this article, we hadn’t heard back from them.
Plant Corals for difficult times
Some initiatives seek to give this ecosystem a boost to accelerate its recovery. Alvarado, for example, participates in the coral gardening project that SINAC, CIMAR, the Raising Coral organization, Peninsula Papagayo and the German Cooperation Agency are implementing there to recover that ecosystem.
Jicaro Beach was one of the areas where they implemented a pilot plan to develop the Protocol for the Restoration of Reefs and Coral Communities of Costa Rica, an instrument that explains how to extract coral fragments from a reef to reproduce them in nurseries and then implant them in other deteriorated reefs.
The document also proposes conducting censuses periodically to evaluate its increase over time.
“We started [observing] 10 and 15 species [of fish]. Now we have almost 50. And when the reefs were healthy in the 1990s, they had 70 species of fish, so we’re reaching almost 80% of the species in the restoration sites,” Alvarado remarked.
Another of the group’s findings is that the nursery corals grow faster than corals growing under natural conditions: 8.5 and 5.5 centimeters per year, respectively. They’ve also found that on average, 87% of corals from nurseries survive.
But these structures aren’t immune to the same problems that the reefs face.
For example, in March of 2021, a boat dropped anchor in one of the areas where the project operates and uprooted one of the structures that housed almost 300 corals. Later, those responsible dumped it on the beach, which killed all the colonies it had.
Although there are still challenges ahead for their survival, the coral reefs in the province appear to be recovering.
Mendez, from ACT, explained that many years of data is needed to be able to determine the cyclical periods of corals to better understand them. But he attributes its recovery to the resilience of this ecosystem and the cold waters of the La Niña phenomenon that favor the reefs.
“When the El Niño phenomenon comes, we’re going to have warm waters, and we may have coral mortality. So the intention is to be better prepared to help the ecosystem get ahead,” he concluded.