This is an excerpt of a longer article published at nature.org.
The son of a Southeast Mexican fisherman, Gerardo Velazquez Cruz left for the city to train as an engineer. But Punta Allen’s palm-studded white sands, and coral reefs teeming with sea life, called him back to the remote fishing village where he grew up.
Located at the tip of a peninsula jutting into the Caribbean, Punta Allen is perched on the Mesoamerican Reef, the Western Hemisphere’s largest barrier reef, stretching 625 miles along Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize.
Gerardo remembers as a child heading out with his father to fish for “langosta” or spiny lobster. “My father wanted me to be a different kind of person. He thinks this [lifestyle] will be ending with the lobster declining and the pollution going up,” he said.
But, “I decided to come back and be a fisherman. I like what I do. I like the place most,” Gerardo said. He and his wife, also a native, have three children, ages 9, 7 and a year-old baby girl. “I like my family being here.”
Punta Allen lies within the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site where The Nature Conservancy works with partners to protect tropical rainforest, savannas, coastal wetlands, mangroves, bays, and coral reefs. Diverse wildlife lives here, from jaguars, crocodiles, birds and butterflies to sea turtles and migrating whale sharks.
Punta Allen shares challenges with coastal communities around the world. How should it develop sustainably without depleting coral reefs and fisheries that people rely upon? And how should it cope with new challenges brought on by climate change: higher sea levels, more intense storms, and warmer oceans that bleach and weaken coral reefs?
In places like Sian Ka’an and Punta Allen, the Conservancy is working on the ground, in the ocean and with people to make ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change a reality.
Gerardo has noticed subtle weather changes, like fewer days when the sea is flat and calm and more summer days when the mangrove canals are warm as soup. A 100-foot beach where he used to play as a child is no longer there – washed away by tides and marine currents.
The low-lying Yucatan peninsula is vulnerable to damage from storm surge. But like many communities, Punta Allen has a natural defense system. In addition to the offshore barrier reef and shallow reef lagoon, miles of mangrove islands and swamps buffer the coast from the battering of storms blowing off the Caribbean.
Protecting these natural barriers, instead of replacing them with sea walls, has other positive effects: less storm damage to beaches, more abundant fisheries, and protection of nature that makes Punta Allen special – for Gerardo’s children and generations of visitors to come.
Today, Gerardo’s catch is smaller than in his father’s day (about 29 pounds per day last month versus an average of 176 pounds a day in the 1970s). He supplements his income by running a sport fly-fishing business as part of the growing ecotourism trade, another way the region is adapting to new conditions.
“I think our environment should be clean and helping to do it should be important for everybody – even people who live in the cities,” Gerardo said.
Lisa Hayden is climate change writer for The Nature Conservancy
Photo by: Paul Mackie/The Nature Conservancy (Fishing boats line the coast in Akumal, south of Cancun, Mexico.)
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