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Hidden Wonders: Exploring the Vitality of Caribbean Reefs

Hidden Wonders: Exploring the Vitality of Caribbean Reefs

The Caribbean area has gained relevance not only for the beauty of its scenery and colors but also for the amount of life that inhabits its waters. Read on and discover why the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System is vital to the world.


The reef is a very complex marine ecosystem composed of a great diversity of flora and fauna. Physically it looks like an underwater mountain formed by coral skeletons. They are home to algae, fish, mollusks, and other species. The large coral populations are known as reefs.


Coral is the part we can most easily identify. Its main characteristics are its bright colors; under the right conditions, it can grow and live for hundreds of years. It comprises millions of marine organisms called polyps, each with tentacles and a mouth for feeding.

Fascinating Facts about Coral Reefs:

  • They are one of the oldest ecosystems on Earth. 
  • They surpass jungles in diversity.
  • They are as important under the sea as jungles are on land.
  • They are home to 25% of all marine fish species worldwide.


So, what exactly is the MBRS?

MBRS is the acronym for Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System and refers to the second-largest barrier reef in the world that stretches across Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The world's largest barrier reef, or Great Barrier Reef, is located in Australia and (as we saw in a certain movie starring a clownfish and a forgetful surgeonfish) is enormous. It covers an area of 348,700 km² and is home to 400 types of coral and almost 7000 species of marine animals and mollusks, almost as big as Germany!


Great Barrier Reef in Australia

In comparison, the MBRS measures 34,272 km² and is the largest transboundary reef in the world. It is home to more than 60 different types of corals and more than 800 marine species, including mollusks, fish, sharks, and sea turtles.

What makes coral reefs so significant?

Reefs around the world are of great importance to the marine ecosystem and also to human life. Some benefits that humans receive from reefs are the following:

  • They feed us: Many fish, mollusks, and other species edible to humans are born and reproduce on reefs. Fishing represents a very important element in the economy of coastal areas, and the reefs provide sustenance to these communities.
  • They protect us: Reefs and mangroves protect us from storm surges, hurricanes, floods, and even tsunamis and make the effect of these disasters less devastating for our communities. They also protect us from sea erosion, thus preserving coastal homes and agricultural land.
  • Tourist attraction: The beauty of the reefs is undeniable, making snorkeling and reef diving the most popular water activities in the Caribbean area. The MAR attracts many tourists whose presence represents economic stability and prosperity for the tourist cities of the Caribbean.
  • They are the medicine of the 21st century. Much medical research begins with the benefits of the sea and reefs. Reefs have been used to treat cancer, HIV, and many other diseases.



  1. For its care, the Mesoamerican Reef has been divided into MPAs or marine protected areas, and each country is responsible for protecting each of these zones.


Number of MPA

Total area of MPAs



19,625.9 km²



4009.7 km²



1063.8 km²



9572.8 km²

Each country's government manages the care of MPAs, and this strategy only works if the areas are well managed.

  1. According to the Reef Health Index, 1% of the reef is in very good condition, 13% is in good condition, 32% is in fair condition, 37% is in poor condition, and 17% is in critical condition.
  2. 47 MPAs cover 57% of the territorial sea, although only 3% is completely protected from fishing.
  3. Honduras shows the highest Reef Health Numbers (3.0), followed by Belize and Mexico (both with 2.8) and Guatemala (2.0).
  4. The Mesoamerican Reef has been bleached at least seven times since 1995.

Diving in Arrowsmith Bank near Cancun

What Causes Harm to the Reef? How Can We Safeguard It?

Reefs are ecosystems that contribute a lot but are also very delicate. The problems that affect the reef directly are:

  • Sea temperature change (ocean warming)
  • Soil and water table contamination
  • Illegal and irresponsible fishing (e.g., not respecting closed seasons or using massive fishing methods)
  • Destruction and physical damage of corals (for use as ornaments)
  • Chemical destruction (e.g., use of sunscreen)
  • Strandings
  • Irresponsible littering

As visitors, our main responsibilities are to avoid wearing sunscreen before swimming and avoid touching starfish and other sea creatures.


Isla Contoy Experience and the MBRS

The Ixlaché reef is a crucial starting point for the Great Mesoamerican Reef or MBRS, playing host to a diverse range of marine life, including 56 different coral species, fish, and commercially valuable organisms such as spiny lobsters and pink snails, making its preservation of utmost importance.

Since this reef is so close to Isla Contoy, the National Commission of Protected Areas (CONANP in Spanish) has developed the following strategies to guarantee its health.

  • Limit visitor entrance to 200 people.
  • Delimit protected areas at sea and on land.
  • Inform visitors about park rules and the importance of the reef.
  • Implementing a reef cultivation program in the sea of Isla Contoy
  • Monitor the flora and fauna of the island and surrounding sea.


Collaboration between governments, civil society, and businesses is crucial for implementing effective strategies to protect and preserve the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System and other marine ecosystems. By working together, we can make a significant impact and ensure the longevity of these vital resources.

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