Cousteau in Mexico : a second observatory

19 November 2009

The Cousteau Observatory, Gulf of Mexico branch, opened its doors in Merida ,Yucatan, on Thursday, November 19, in the presence of Francine Cousteau, President of Equipe Cousteau and the Cousteau Society, His Excellency the Ambassador of France to Mexico Daniel Parfait, the Governor of the State of Yucatán Ivonne Aracelly Ortega Pacheco the Director General of CINVESTAV, Dr René Asomoza, surrounded by prestigious scientists.

Located in the Research and Advanced Studies Center of the National Polytechnic Institute (CINVESTAV) in Mérida on the Yucatán peninsula, this observatory  will constitute a key element in establishing an assessment of the region and monitoring the modifications of an especially remarkable ecosystem: the Gulf of Mexico and the Mesoamerican barrier reef. Primary concerns are linked to the pressures of usage and climate change effect on this ecosystem.

Conceived by Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, and by France, in the framework of dFranco-Mexican agreement of cooperation signed during the visit of President Sarkozy, the project is actively supported by the Embassy of France in Mexico and the association of Mexican entrepreneurs Mares de Mexico under the leadership of Nobel laureate Mario Molina.
In France, different institutions are represented:  the Université de Bretagne Occidentale (UBO) represented by its President Dr. Pascal Olivard,  the IRD its representative in Mexico, M. Pascal Labazée, land two regions of France, the Brittany and  the Pays de la Loire, represented by their Presidents, M. Jean-Yves Le Drian and M. Jacques Auxiette respectively.

Dr René Asomoza, Director General of CINVESTAV declared, “The Observatory will be a helpful resource for decisions in defining public policies and in managing the uses of marine and coastal ecosystems.”

Daniel Parfait, Ambassador from France to Mexico said, “The Cousteau Observatory is one of the flagship projects in Franco-Mexican cooperation together with agreements between our two countries, notably in the battle against the effects of climate change.”

While symbolically presenting a piece of wood from the renovation that is underway of Captain Cousteau’s mythic ship Calypso, Mrs. Cousteau added, “Captain Cousteau, at the dawn of the 100th anniversary of his birth, finds here in Mexico an anchorage and the recognition of an entire people for his work in the service of others. What magnificent encouragement for the difficult missions that await us. It is not just a matter of giving a name, however prestigious it may be. It is a matter of using that name to maintain the independence of the work and results. I am entrusting the name of Captain Cousteau to science and to CINVESTAV because I know that here, with the men and women of this institute and that of CIBNOR in Baja California, lie a sense of ethics and a respect for the same values we hold dear, values whose continuation it is my duty to ensure. »

In the runup to the Copenhagen summit, the two branches signal a global “first” in bilateral cooperation aimed at monitoring the changes in marine environment that are true world heritages and very much exposed to threats of climate change.

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The Gulf of Mexico: a rich but fragile socio-ecosystem

In 1974, Captain Cousteau and his crew embarked on Calypso to study the region of the Gulf of Mexico and its luxuriant fauna and flora. More than 2,000 marine species and nearly 300 terrestrial species were inventoried in the coral reefs and islands of the southern Gulf. The Cousteau team was particularly interested in the nurse sharks that lie on the floor of caves to “sleep,” but the Captain also took a keen interest in the unique migration of spiny lobsters that march in long lines for 100 kilometers. The extraordinary images of these two phenomena, unknown to the public at the time, were captured in the Cousteau films Sleeping Sharks of the Yucatán and Incredible March of the Spiny Lobsters.

The Gulf of Mexico shelters one of the longest barrier reefs in the world, the Mesoamerican Reef, second only to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Sadly, this remarkable system is subject to great stress from human activities as well as threats arising from climate change, warmer water temperature and ocean acidification. The Yucatán peninsula is subject to frequent storms and hurricanes that cause substantial damage to the coral reefs from wave action and suspended sediments. An increase in catastrophic events of this sort is one of the anticipated effects of climate change.

The pressures are strong on the near shore reefs of Mexico like those off the port of Veracruz, due to agricultural and industrial wastes that are carried by the major rivers. They have also suffered from intensive fishing since the 1960s and a rise in tourism since the 1970s. Less than 2% of hard corals are still alive in some reefs north of the tip of the peninsula.

Coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico grow very slowly because of the heavy influx of sediment-laden freshwater that flows from the North American continent.

Some 346 species of reef fish have been inventoried in Mexico, 245 of them on the Atlantic coast: 68% in the Gulf of Mexico and 92% along the Yucatán peninsula.

The Gulf of Mexico is home to five of the seven species of sea turtles: leatherback, hawksbill, green, loggerhead and Kemp's ridley. The only known nesting site of the world’s most highly endangered sea turtle, the Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii), listed in critical danger of extinction by the IUCN (World Conservation Union) since 1996, is located on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. In 1947, about 40,000 Kemp’s ridley nests could be counted on the beaches in a day; now, fewer than 4,500 nests are counted in a year.

Principal References:

Almada-Villela, P., M. Mcfield, P. Kramer, P. R. Kramer and E. Arias-Gonzalez, 2002, Status of Coral Reefs of Mesoamerica - Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. In: C.R. Wilkinson (ed.), Status of coral reefs of the world: 2002. GCRMN Report, Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville. Chapter 16, pp 303-324

Burke, L. and J. Maidens, 2004, Reefs at Risk in the Caribbean. World Resources Institute, Washington. 81 p.

Wilkinson, C., Souter, D. (eds), 2000, Status of Caribbean Coral Reefs After Bleaching and Hurricanes in 2005. Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, and Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, Townsville, 152 p.

Almada-Villela, P., M. Mcfield, P. Kramer, P. R. Kramer and E. Arias-Gonzalez, 2002, Status of Coral Reefs of Mesoamerica - Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. In: C.R. Wilkinson (ed.), Status of coral reefs of the world: 2002. GCRMN Report, Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville. Chapter 16, pp 303-324.